Three different running backs had a total of six 100-yard rushing games for the Washington Redskins in 2011. In spite of being the starting running back for the first four games of the season and five of the first six, Tim Hightower was not one of those three. But assuming he's fully recovered from the knee injury that ended his season in October, Hightower, who has agreed to terms on a contract to return to Washington, is the favorite to be the starting running back when the Redskins open the 2012 season.
I've written this before, and likely will again, but every time I do somebody says, "Nunh-uh. Roy Helu is the guy. And Evan Royster looked good at the end of the year" or something like that. And long-term, Helu might be the guy. And Royster did look good at the end of the year. But I'm telling you -- and I am not just speculating here -- that the guy Mike Shanahan and the Redskins' coaches like as the starting running back, assuming everyone's healthy, is Hightower.
Shanahan sees Hightower as the most complete of the running backs on his roster. He may not be as explosive or dynamic a runner as Helu is, but he's a dirty-work guy who runs it just fine, catches the ball well out of the backfield and excels in pass protection as a blocker. This last point is likely the most important, since I don't know if you heard but the Redskins just spent four very high draft picks on a new rookie quarterback and likely rank his protection among their most important 2012 responsibilities. Shanahan and his coaches think very highly of Helu and Royster and probably rookie Alfred Morris, too, and they'll surely find plenty of carries and catches and responsibilities for all of them as the year goes along. But as long as they're sure Hightower's surgically repaired ligament isn't hindering him, he's the best bet to be running with the first team in August and September.
Now, the disclaimer: As anyone who plays fantasy football can tell you, predicting what Shanahan will do with his running backs from week to week is risky and sometimes foolish work. Part of the issue is Shanahan believes his zone-blocking schemes, when properly executed, have as much to do with his running backs' fine statistics as do the backs themselves. The Redskins tell their new offensive linemen that they can make stars out of running backs, and on a game-to-game basis last year they kind of did. Ryan Torain didn't get a single carry in the first three games of 2011. In Week 4 in St. Louis (granted, against an all-time lousy run defense), he got 19 carries and rushed for 135 yards. He would gain a total of 65 yards on 40 carries over the entire rest of the season.
So the 100-yard games Helu produced in Weeks 12-14, and the two 100-yard games Royster came up with in the final two weeks of the season, look real nice on paper. But Shanahan's not looking at those numbers. He sees a couple of young backs who have more work to do before they're as complete a back as Hightower already is. He sees Hightower as the guy he can plug into that zone-blocking run game and not have to teach him on the fly. There is absolutely nothing to say Helu or Royster or both can't become that kind of a back at some point in the future, or even by the end of this season. But as of right now, assuming full health and all else being equal, the Redskins' starting running back would be Hightower. And if you brought up the 100-yard game thing, I'm sure they'd tell you that Hightower's just as likely to get 100 yards in a game as any of those other backs are in this offense. And that they don't much care about that sort of thing anyway.