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The Morris/Helu Split, Gruden's Play-Calling and the Myth of the Modern 25 Touch-Per-Game Back

A look at the Redskins' running back opportunity split, Jay Gruden's play-calling and the myth of the 25 touch-per-game running back in the modern NFL

Patrick Smith

At the quarter pole of the 2014 season, the Redskins offense sits at 4th in total yards, 12th in rushing yards and 4th in passing yards (all per-game).  You would think that those rankings would indicate that Washington boasts an elite offense, but it just doesn't feel that way at all.  The unit has improved, to be sure, but they are far from elite.  It's hard to call an offense anything bordering "elite", when they score less than 15 points in half of their games, rank 16th in points per game and are the supposed strength of the last place team in the conference.

Just what is the problem though?  What is holding back this talented group of players from fulfilling their potential?  Is it the play-calling?  Is Jay Gruden living up to his reputation as a pass-happy player-caller?  Perhaps Alfred Morris should be getting the rock 25 times a game; after all, he is probably the most reliable option on the entire team.  This line of reasoning seems to be reflective of the sentiment that is widely-held by most Redskins fans.  At least, if you consider the commenters in the Snap Judgments series and everyone I know to be a large enough representation of that population.

I generally agreed with these ideas, but they seemed a bit too simple to digest without further questioning and explanation, so I decided to dig a little deeper, since like, that's what I do if you haven't figured it out yet.  We'll start with the head-man, Coach Jay Gruden, and see if the offensive play-calling is up to snuff through the first four games.

Jay's Plays:

Jay Gruden has developed somewhat of a reputation as a coach that leans on the passing game too much, despite the fact that he hasn't always had the most talented signal callers at his disposal (i.e. Andy Dalton).  You could make a strong argument against this narrative by mentioning that the Bengals ranked 12th in rushing % from 2011 to 2013 while Gruden was the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati.

Past is typically prologue, but maybe something has changed or maybe those numbers are hiding something.  Instead of being the ghost of Gruden's past and dwelling on what has already happened, let's focus on what he's done with the Redskins up to this point.  In the tables below, everything that is below the league average percentage or median rank has been highlighted in red.

Game 1st Half 2nd Half & OT
Rush % 40.4% 41.6% 39.0%
NFL Avg. 42.4% 42.0% 42.9%
NFL Rank 20th 15th 23rd

As you can see the narrative holds up when we look at the main and most basic passing versus rushing play percentages.  The Redskins call running plays at a rate below the NFL average in general and in both halves.  This is certainly troubling, but maybe there is more than meets the eye here (speaking of that saying, the Transformers movies suck).  Maybe the down-and-distance or a negative scoring differential has dictated that Jay take things to the air.

1 & 10+ 2 & 1-3 2 & 4-7 2 & 8+ 3 & 1-3 3 & 4-7 3 & 8+
Rush % 49.6% 66.7% 43.3% 20.0% 29.4% 11.1% 13.0%
NFL Avg. 51.1% 61.0% 42.5% 34.3% 45.2% 15.5% 15.4%
NFL Rank 18th 13th 17th 32nd 28th 21st 16th

Washington ran the ball less than the average team in almost every one of these down-and-distance situations.  They are just below average on first-and-ten plus, but in my opinion we are a running team first and this number should be even higher.  The most egregious thing here is that they rank dead-last on second-and-long and 28th on third-and-short runs.  Just one of the Redskins' 17 third-down plays with three yards or less to go has gone to Alfred Morris.  Morris is averaging 4.5 yard-per-carry on the year.  That just does not make sense.  The Redskins rank 21st in conversion percentage in this category.  I wonder why.

To be fair, I need to point out that they also rank in the top five in first-down percentage on first-and-ten plus, second-and-short (1-3 yards), second-and-long (8 or more yards) and third-and-medium (4-7 yards).  This would seem to indicate the increased passing is leading to more success.  I would contend that in some instances that may very well be the case, but that more often than not it is hurting the team in the long run.

Washington has run the 11th most third-and-long plays (8 or more yards) this year and they have the 2nd worst conversion rate in the league on those plays (8.7%).  They rank 25h in overall third-down conversion percentage with a rate of 36.7%.  They have also run the most plays on fourth down with seven or more yards-to-go.  The Redskins rank 26th with a fourth-down conversion rate of 25%.  Passing the ball at a higher than average rate might catch the defense off guard on occasion, but typically it's going to lead to third-and-long situations that Washington does not have the personnel to overcome on a consistent basis.

At this point, it's going to be hard for anyone to dispute that there wasn't any validity to the idea that Gruden liked to pass the ball a lot; but maybe there is still hope though.  The Redskins have lost 75% of their games, so maybe game flow/script is to blame.  It would certainly be a start to explaining this play-calling disparity.

Leading Leading 1-6 Leading 7-13 Leading 14+ Tied Trailing Trail 1-6 Trail 7-13 Trail 14+
Rush % 49.5% 40.0% 52.4% 50.0% 44.4% 30.3% 27.3% 31.3% 29.4%
NFL Avg. 50.9% 46% 49.2% 60.4% 44.5% 33.9% 39.1% 34.9% 26.9%
NFL Rank 21st 23rd 12th 20th 20th 24th 27th 20th 8th

There are only two scoring differential situations listed here that Washington does not rank 20th or below in, and the only category that they place 10th or better in is when the team is down by 14 or more points.  I'll stop here and let those numbers speak for themselves.

I know and accept the fact that the NFL is a passing league now (some still have not come to this realization); but the fact that the Redskins are rushing less than the average team in 2014 in the vast majority of situations is quite disconcerting.  This is especially alarming when you consider that Kirk Cousins and Robert Griffin are the ones passing the ball in lieu of Alfred Morris and Roy Helu running it.  Cousins and Griffin are simply not polished enough pure passers to put an NFL team on their backs and lead it to a successful season, and why put that burden on them when there is such a strong running game to build a foundation on.

The Myth of the Modern 25 Touch Per-Game Back:

This is where you, the reader, or the average Redskins fan grabs their pitch forks and torches and demands that Alfred Morris be fed the football until his head falls off a la Petey the parakeet in Dumb and Dumber.  I'm cool with that idea in general, but just how big of a workload should "the Butler" be getting?  The all-too-common call here is that it's 25 touches or bust for Morris.

If you extrapolate 25 touches (carries + receptions) over the course of a 16 game season that would come to a total of 400.  Morris has 74 touches so far this season, so he is about a full game behind that pace.  Let's just assume that he gets 25 touches from here on out.  If he were to do that then he would end the season with right around 375 total touches.  Morris' career high was 346 touches in his extraordinary 2012 rookie campaign, so 375 is within reach, right?  Unfortunately, probably not.

In the last five years (2009-2013), there have only been seven times (5 players) in which a running back has totaled 375 or more touches in a season and only three occasions in which a runner recorded 25 or more touches a game.  The full list is below.

Player (2009-2013 RB) Year Attempts Rec Touches Touch/G
Chris Johnson 2009 358 50 408 25.50
Arian Foster 2010 327 66 393 24.56
Arian Foster 2012 351 40 391 24.44
Adrian Peterson 2012 348 40 388 24.25
Maurice Jones-Drew 2011 343 43 386 24.13
Steven Jackson 2010 330 46 376 23.50
Steven Jackson 2009 324 51 375 25.00
Arian Foster 2011 278 53 331 25.46

Take note of the fact that every back on this list collected at least 40 receptions in their heavy work load seasons.  It's just not realistic to tally such a high number of touches by solely smashing between the tackles.  This is a problem for Alfred Morris, because he has never produced a 40-catch season.  In fact, Morris has only caught 23 balls over the course of his two-and-a-quarter seasons (36 games).  This just simply isn't his game, and it will be difficult for him to ever reach such lofty touch numbers without this skill.

However, if you're still a true believer in the idea that Morris can attain these high touch numbers, then you may not have yet fully considered the scope of how unusual running back workloads of this scale have become in recent years.  That would make you "out of touch". Between 2009 and 2013, there were 236 running backs seasons in which the back totaled 100 or more carries, and in only 3 of those 236 seasons did the runner touch the ball 25 times per game (1.3%). Think about that, take a look at the other numbers in the following table and do your best to accept the fact that this is probably not the answer that the Redskins are looking for.

2009-2013 100+ Carry RB Seasons Total 100 Carries 400 Touch 375 Touch 350 Touch 25 Per/G 23 Per/G 22 Per/G
# of Seasons 236 1 7 15 3 12 20
# of Players 102 1 5 9 3 8 11
% of Seasons 100% 0.4% 3.0% 6.4% 1.3% 5.1% 8.5%
% of Players 100% 1.0% 4.9% 8.8% 2.9% 7.8% 10.8%

DeMarco Murray is the only runner in 2014 that is on pace to go for over 375 touches.  He is actually on track to receive 432 combined touches.  I can assure you, that with his injury history, he will not achieve this total.  Meanwhile, Morris comes in at 18.5 touches per game, which is actually still good for 11th most in the league.  Running backs just aren't used the same way that they used to be.  Take a look at the table below and compare it to the preceding one to see how much things have changed over the course of the last ten years.

2004-2008 100+ Carry RB Seasons Total 100 Carries 400 Touch 375 Touch 350 Touch 25 Per/G 23 Per/G 22 Per/G
# of Seasons 233 6 20 32 9 34 45
# of Players 106 6 12 18 8 19 26
% of Seasons 100% 2.6% 8.6% 13.7% 3.9% 14.6% 19.3%
% of Players 100% 5.7% 11.3% 17.0% 7.5% 17.9% 24.5%

The Morris/Helu Split:

After reading that last section, some of you may be wondering if I do, in fact, actually want Alfred Morris to get the ball more.  I do, but I think this should be achieved with a reasoned approach that doesn't involve him getting the ball on every snap and ending up in traction before the Redskins' Week 10 bye.  It should also be an approach that's primary aim is not chiefly accomplished by siphoning off carries and targets from Roy Helu in an effort to get the rock to Morris on a more consistent basis.

There are a few reasons that I believe that Morris' increase in opportunities should not come at Helu's expense: 1) A great deal of Helu's playing time comes in obvious passing situations; 2) Helu is clearly the better receiver of the two; 3) He's also arguably the more talented athlete and; 4) he doesn't get the ball that much as it is.

Roy Helu Snap Data # of Snaps % of Total
Total Snaps 104 100.0%
Passing Plays 87 84%
3rd & 4th Down 45 43%
Trailing 54 52%
2-Minute Drill 31 30%
Long or >= 8 Yards 71 68%
Long (Excluding 1st Down) 38 37%

You could easily make a case that Helu's presence on the field is telegraphing the pass when that is exactly what Washington does on 84% of this snaps.  However, upon further investigation of this sample of Snap Judgements data, one can see that much of Helu's playing time comes on snaps that legitimately warrant a more pass-heavy approach.  There is some overlapping here, but over a third of his opportunities come on plays on third or fourth down, when the distance to go is 8 or more yards and when the team is trailing.  Thirty percent of his snaps come courtesy of the two-minute offense at the end of halves, and there were another ten snaps that I could've tried to shoehorn into this category as well, but I decided to stick to the strict requirement that these plays count only when there are two minutes or less remaining in a half.  Finally, Helu's snaps occur with an average of 8.83 yards to go for a first down and with a scoring differential of -2.1.

Some may scoff at the notion that Helu is the far superior receiving option;  but as you will see, that would be a mistake.  In an effort to display a side-by-side comparison of Alfred Morris' and Roy Helu's receiving prowess, I've gathered a number of stats that measure receiving efficiency in the table below.  I've also included several advanced athleticism metrics derived from their combine numbers, as athleticism is a key component to being able to effectively  operate in space as a receiving threat out of the backfield.

Morris vs. Helu as Receivers Alfred Morris Roy Helu
NFL Career
Receptions/Game 0.64 2.55
Reception Yards/Game 5.1 21.9
Catch % 74% 82%
Yards/Reception 7.97 8.60
Long 26 55
Career PFF Advanced Metrics
Yards Per Route Run
0.43 1.17
Drop Rate %
11.54% 6.73%
Pass Block %
96.2% 95.0%
College Career (Freshman Seasons Excluded)
Receptions/Game 0.83 1.23
Reception Yards/Game 8.33 12.13
Yards/Reception 10 9.41
40-Yard Dash 4.67 4.40
Speed Score (40 adjusted for weight) 92.1 116.9
Agility Score (Cone+Shuttle) 11.20 10.68
Explosion Score (Vert+Broad) 152.5 155.5
Totals 2 12

The final tally comes in at: 12 for Roy Helu and 2 for Alfred Morris.  It's actually 13-2, but that would've effectively been double counting because the speed score metric adjusts 40 time for weight and both players weighed in at 219 pounds at the combine.  This was not really a contest, and when you take into account that nearly every pertinent receiving metric was included here it becomes difficult to make a really sound case for the idea that Helu should cede much, if any, of his third down and passing snaps to Morris.

You could rationally contend that Helu should see even more work because he is likely the more talented athlete (take note that I did not say "player").  For example, Helu's agility score (measure of quickness and agility) is the 2nd highest by a running back on record that I could find (combine data is available from 1999-present).  To give you an idea of the significance of this standing, here is a list of some of the more prominent runners to rank in the top 50 in this metric: Jamaal Charles, Ray Rice, Le'Veon Bell, Darren Sproles, Giovani Bernard and Edgerrin James.  With that in mind, perhaps Helu should be getting more opportunities instead of less of them.  It's not as if he's getting his hands on the ball that much anyways.

Morris vs. Helu 2014 Workload Snap Share % Snap Share Rank Rush Market Share % Rush MS Rank RB Opportunity Share % RB Opp. Share Rank
Alfred Morris 58.4% 14th 64.5% 6th 63.2% 12th
Roy Helu 36.8% 38th 13.6% 68th 22.2% 58th

**Note: Over 80 running backs were ranked for these statistics.  Marcel Reece and Mike Tolbert were included because of their larger than average workloads for a fullback.**'

  • Snap Share: Percentage of the team's total snaps that a player took part in.
  • Rush Market Share %: Percentage of carries that a player received relative to the total number of rushes by the player's team.
  • RB Opportunity Share %: Percentage of opportunities (carries + targets) that a running back received relative to the total number of running back opportunities by the player's team.

When you look at these statistics, it becomes apparent that Alfred Morris is already handling quite the heavy workload relative to his other backfield mates.  Morris ranks 14th or higher in the league in each of these three measures.  The gap between he and Helu is particularly noteworthy in the rushing market share department.  There really isn't that much work for Morris to take from Helu, because, in reality, he already has a stranglehold on most of the opportunities as it is.

Final Thoughts:

Jay Gruden's propensity to pass the football is not so egregious that every football pundit, on every channel and site is calling for him to feed Morris till the wheels fall off.  It's not as if he's dialing up 50 pass attempts a game, in an effort to recreate the 2013 Bronco's offense or the Ram's greatest show on turf.  I actually believe that Gruden wants to run the ball, but that when the going get's tough, Jay's best laid plans to run the ball seem to go out the window.  This is evidenced by the numbers, which show that the Redskins' rushing percentage rankings drop even lower in the second half, when they are trailing and on second-and-long and third down.  Every team passes more in those situations, but again, it's the fact that Washington is doing it so much more than everyone else at those times.

Clearly, the Redskins need to run the ball more with Alfred Morris.  As the Post's Liz Clarke points out, Washington is 0-9 when Morris rushes for less than 14 times in a game (with two of those fourteen occurrences taking place this year), 3-8 when he gets it 15-19 times and 11-5 when he goes for 20 or more carries.

I wish it was as simple as getting Morris 25 touches a game every single week, but that probably isn't feasible because running backs just don't handle workloads of that magnitude in the modern NFL.  It's not that it's impossible.  It's just not probable or optimal when you consider that Morris' health and effectiveness would likely suffer significantly as a result; especially, when you acknowledge that it's unlikely that he would curb some of the physical burden that such a high number of touches entails by catching more passes out of the backfield.

Roy Helu is the preferred receiving option on the team, and he should remain in that role for as long as he is in Washington.  Helu is also a more gifted natural athlete than Morris, and, if anything, he should be getting more touches to buttress his already somewhat scant share of the running back opportunities.

Jay Gruden needs to get the ball to both Morris and Helu more in nearly every situation - I'd say to the tune of about 2-3 more touches a game for each of them.  Gruden must start games with a run-heavy approach and stick to it even if the down, distance or scoring differential are not always perfectly ideal.  If he does this, then perhaps the Redskins can stay out of third and fourth-and-longs, where they have struggled mightily in 2014.  Then his young signal callers would have more manageable third-down scenarios to work with, and they'd be in a better position to succeed or to simply hand the ball off for an easy first down.

Gruden has said he intends to do just that, but this is not the first occasion on which he has expressed this sentiment.  If he actually follows through on his promise this time, then maybe the Redskins' offense will eventually live up to it's statistical billing as one of the best in the NFL.