Nobody doubted this was the case, though Alfred Morris made it clear again this week. He didn’t want to sit back and assume what happened as a rookie would take place in his second season.
It’s not how Morris thinks. So the fact that he rushed for 1,613 yards during the regular season only meant he knew more would be expected. He also knew defenses would key on him even more. However, that could be difficult with the other weapons the Redskins have, starting with quarterback Robert Griffin III, receiver Pierre Garcon and tight end Fred Davis. But Morris knows he'll be a bigger target
“Is it impossible to do good? No, but at the same time it’s a challenge,” Morris said. “I don’t want to be OK with just being OK.”
That’s why he enters his second season confident and it’s why his teammates and coaches feel the same way.
“I think Alfred just looks better, and that’s tough to say because Alfred did as good last year as I’ve ever had someone do for me,” Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “But, Alf, as you guys know, Alf’s as humble as there is. He always has that. He never feels like he’s arrived, and even after his rookie year he still has that same mentality.”
Here’s how Morris is better:
1. He’s quicker. Morris cuts with more suddenness than he did last year, a byproduct of feeling more comfortable in the system but also because of his offseason work. It was evident in training camp when Morris didn’t just have to rely on lowering a shoulder to get extra yards; he could get them with his feet. Morris cut well last season, but there is a difference in 2013.
One reason Morris stuck with his 1991 Mazda is to remind him how hard it was to earn the money to buy the car. Guys like that don’t get fat and happy off one good season. So Morris worked out differently, focusing on explosive training and resistance exercises, running with bungee cords attached to him.
“It was very different,” Morris said. “I definitely [notice it]. The coaches notice, the scouts notice it. They said, ‘Man, what did you do different when training this year?’ It’s been noticed.”
Yes, it has been.
“He’s looser, he’s more flexible,” Shanahan said. “He’s in as good of shape as he’s been. He knows what’s going on and he’s just better. You get better or worse and you worry about rookies, especially after they have the success that he did. They think things will come easy for them the next year and they never do. Alf’s been the opposite. He’s attacked this offseason like he’s still trying to make the team and you can just see it in how his body moves.”
2. He’s more comfortable. Morris said it took him four or five games to get that feeling as a rookie. It’s why he treats the season opener versus New Orleans the way a film critic would treat Ishtar.
“I hate watching those early games, especially the Saints game,” he said. “My tracks were terrible. It was bad at times. Now I’ve learned the offense and now I’m starting to own the offense. I get what they’re trying to do, like setting up blocks. I’m better at what I do.”
This is the result of that increased comfort level. In Saturday’s preseason win over Buffalo, Morris approached linebacker Nigel Bradham after eluding trouble in the backfield. Last year, Morris would have lowered his shoulder and plowed for an extra yard. This time? A spin move for 3 yards. He quickly jabbed inside, got Bradham leaning that way and spun out. A combination of comfort and quickness.
“I wouldn’t have done that last year, not because I couldn’t do it but I wasn’t comfortable,” Morris said. “It was an in-the-feel-thing, seeing what I can use and seeing how players play me. I still lower my shoulder, but if I need extra yards, why not?”
3. Along with that comfort comes maturity. It matters. When Morris runs, it often looks as if he’s peeking downfield to see where his second cut needs to be. There’s a reason it appears that way. That’s exactly what Morris is doing.
“Last year I’m just looking at my aiming point,” Morris said. “Say I’m aiming for the outside leg of the tackle, instead of looking right there I’m looking outside the tackle and I know where I’m going and I can look beyond that. I can look at the second level.”
Sometimes he combines all of his new elements: comfort, agility and maturity. We go back to his 3-yard run against Buffalo. Morris took a handoff and immediately had to dodge a defender diving at his legs. His legs swerved wide as his eyes stayed downfield and he never slowed. As the linebacker approached, Morris already knew the outside was clear. So he jabbed in and spun wide. A lesser back loses yards; he managed to pick up 3.
“What he’s done in terms of putting his foot in the ground and making the cut, you haven’t seen that in a long time from guys around here or in the league,” Young said. “A lot of guys take choppy steps before they make that cut and he can step on the heels of the linemen and make that cut. That’s what separates 3 yards from 6 yards.”
And that’s what separates Morris from other backs. He’s not some zone-read creation; rather, he made the zone read better with his ability.
4. OK, this isn’t a change. In fact, it’s still the crux of who he is as a runner. Morris has added to his game in other ways; but the impression he likes to leave on defenders remains the same.
“I’m not much of an upper-body person,” Morris said. “I can hang, but my strength is in my legs. I used to joke around in high school that my legs were my moneymakers. They actually do make me money now. I pride myself in strong legs, and the one thing I do is keep my legs churning no matter what. I never stop my feet, breaking tackles it helps your momentum. You get a lot of big, strong defenders out there, a lot of times I can hang with these guys bigger and stronger by keeping my legs churning. I refuse to be tackled by one person without getting the maximum yards I can get.”