With training camp coming up I will be looking at a series of stats that the Redskins need to improve on in 2015 as they look to be competitive this year in the division and wild card race. First up rushing yards per carry on offense:
Last season the Redskins as a team averaged 4.2 yards per carry, which overall is not bad and ranked 14th best in the league. For a team that looks to rely on succeeding on the ground though that number is going to need to improve if the Redskins want to win more football games in 2015.
What's noticeable about the 4.2 number is the drop-off from the previous two years of 4.8 and 5.2 (which ranked 3rd and 2nd respectively in the league). There are a number of factors for the drop in rushing average from Robert Griffin III running less often and not being as effective when he did, the offensive line blocking dropping off, difference in coaching and Alfred Morris being less effective. Of the three main causes, Morris being less effective is the biggest factor and potentially the most troubling if it's not fixed.
Now this is not to say by any stretch that Alfred Morris had a bad or even average season. In fact it should still be considered a good year where he 1,074 yards and 8 TD's on 265 carries (4.1 ypc) is pretty solid, especially considering the lack of help he got and the poor situational football he was put into by being on a bad team. Having a rushing average of 4.1 ypc over 150+ carries isn't bad, in fact of 32 backs who hit the 150 carry plateau 17 of them had ypc averages under 4.1. For Morris though this was a pretty big drop-off from his first two years in the league where he had rushing averages of 4.8 in 2012 and 4.6 in 2013.
While the decline in numbers for Morris probably has something to do with external factors like the OL and the new coaching staff (more on that later), some of it is just on Morris's shoulders. Morris simply wasn't making the same sort of runs he was making the previous two seasons. He wasn't breaking tackles like before, and he was going down on first contact too often. Now some may blame the offensive line here for allowing that contact, but really there is not much difference between 2013 and 2014. In 2013 Morris was stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage on 10.1% of his rushes (it was 9.3% in 2012), but last year it was roughly the same at 10.2%. While obviously you would rather see that number go down rather than up it really wasn't the difference between the two seasons. Morris did see a decline in his in percentage of carries of 10 or more yards from 10.5% to 9.8%, which attributed to some of the drop-off, but still it wasn't probably the biggest factor.
The big difference for Morris between 2014 and 2013 was really what he did past the line of scrimmage and before the 10 yard mark. Obviously you want to see fewer stuffed runs and more big plays, but 75-80%+ of the runs are going to be between 1 and 9 yards so that is the area that needs to improve the most. In 2014 Morris could break that one tackle or make that one guy miss and get those extra 2-4 yards, turning a short 2-3 yard carry into a 4-7 yard variety. Last year that just wasn't the case.
The good news for Morris is that when it comes to external factors to help him (and the rest of the unit) things appear to be better than a year ago. Bill Callahan is known as a rushing guru and has had a lot of strong finishes (in every rushing category) throughout his NFL career in a number of different roles. He's the new offensive line coach and figures to implement more of a power rushing attack (with some zone elements) which should help Morris overall. Callahan should also get the most out of the offensive line unit, which still isn't top notch, but should be improved from a year ago.
While a lot of the blame centered around the OL unit in 2014, really they weren't that much different from their performance in 2013 and even 2012 (though the injury to Trent Williams did play a role). They were an undersized zone line that struggled in short yardage, but from time to time would open up big holes. Their play needed to be better, but they weren't really playing that different from before. In 2015 though with more of an emphasis on power and the addition of first round pick Brandon Scherff, there is some reason to expect them to play better. Hopefully they can remain healthy and can start making life easier for Alfred Morris and company.
Now the Robert Griffin III debate is an interesting one as to how much impact he had on the rushing decline. Obviously him running less and being far less effective (4.6 ypc in 2014 vs 5.7 ypc in 2013), helped lead to the overall team decline in rushing yards per carry, but his effectiveness with Morris is a bit more debatable. Some believe that Morris is far more effective with Griffin in the line-up and there are some numbers that definitely back that up.
The problem is that the data is skewed based on sample size as Morris has made all 48 starts over the last three years and Griffin has been the primary quarterback in 35 of those starts. Also the 2012 season specifically skews the data because that was Morris's best season (by far) and Griffin was the starter in 15 of the games. While it's true that Morris's top three rushing yard games (Minn, TB and SF) were Griffin starts, how much of a threat was Griffin in those games? In two of them (TB and SF) Griffin had the worst two games of his career, and the passing attack was completely inept. It's hard to really make the case that the defenses were ignoring Morris due to the threat of Griffin (who was also coming back from a serious ankle injury). Griffin was also the primary quarterback the last three games of the year where Morris managed just 175 yards on 47 carries (3.72 ypc), and that included two of Griffin's better games of the year. It's unlikely that Griffin will ever be the rushing threat he was in 2012, so the reality is the best "help" Griffin (or any quarterback) can give Morris is improved QB play with fewer sacks and turnovers and just keeping the chains moving.
Perhaps the biggest external factor that could help Morris improve on his ypc this season is an improvement from the defense. Not only did the Redskins lose 12 games last season which is going to cut back on rushing attempts, but they lost 9 of their games by 10 or more points (including 5 by 20 or more points), which really took the running game out of the window early in the 2nd half. Not only do these blowouts lessen the number of opportunities that Morris is going to get, but by being down it really made it impossible to have any sort of sustained drives in the 2nd half of games. Even if Morris was getting positive yards (which definitely wasn't always the case), you can't afford to grind out 7-9 minute drives when you are down by two scores and your defense can't stop anyone. The Redskins defense isn't going to confuse anyone into believing they are the Seattle Seahawks, but they should hopefully no longer be near the bottom of the league. They should at least be able to be competitive and protect some leads.
Looking ahead for 2015 there are reasons to be optimistic that Alfred Morris and the Redskins as a whole can improve on their yards per carry. If they can do that they can be a top 5 rushing offense again which could go a long way to making this team competitive in 2015. Being a top rushing attack isn't a guarantee for success, but without them being among the league's best again it seems impossible for the Redskins to have any real chance of success.