What Will Jay Gruden's Effect Be on Alfred Morris?

Morris is a notorious volume rusher. Gruden is a passing-focused coach. Can they mesh?

The 2012 season was a revelation for downtrodden and long-suffering Washington football fans: a blockbuster draft day deal netted them a dynamic first-round quarterback, Robert Griffin III. The expensive offseason acquisition of wide receiver Pierre Garçon wasn’t fully realized this season, as he would spend most of the season injured, but when he played, he was electrifying. Most of all, however, was the revelation of a small-school running back selected in the sixth round of the NFL Draft, who would end the season with 1,613 yards (second in the NFL only to Adrian Peterson's near-record-setting campaign) and 13 touchdowns on the ground. This man was Alfred Morris.

Yet Morris also became noteworthy for a more worrisome reason, as his final 2012 stat line came in: he became only the fifth running back since 2000 to have over 300 carries and less than 20 targets in a season (Michael Turner did this twice, however, both in 2008 and 2010). His skill set was revealed as fairly one-dimensional. Worse yet, when Griffin sustained a multiple ligament knee injury in the 2012 playoffs, it not only hampered his own play in 2013, but we saw Morris’ effectiveness plummet too.

After the disaster of the 2013 season, head coach Mike Shanahan was fired in disgrace. Enter Jay Gruden. The Washington brass hired the former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator to fill the position this offseason. Immediate speculation began about what shape the lackluster Washington offense would look like under the guiding hand of a true guru. Gruden is known more as a passing-oriented coach, but can he maximize Alfred Morris’s potential nonetheless?

Alf's Crash Landing

Here at numberFire, we try to look beyond box score numbers and examine a player’s true effectiveness every time they touch the ball. To do this, we’ve developed a metric called Net Expected Points (NEP), which is a measure of how much a player’s actions increase – or detract from – his team’s chances of scoring on any given drive. Add all of those increases and decreases up, and you have a player’s NEP total. When discussing running backs specifically, we’ll mostly be dealing with Rushing NEP, the expected points gained by a player specifically on rushing plays as the ball-carrier. It’s important to note, also, that Rushing NEP scores tend to be low – or negative – because rushing plays tend to be less efficient at picking up large chunks of yardage than passing plays.

“Alf" Morris totaled 336 carries on his maiden voyage in the NFL, accumulating 10.85 Rushing NEP, good for ninth in the league among all running backs. I previously touched on the fact that Morris’ value primarily came from his volume of carries, and this proves to be pretty true when we look at his NEP efficiency rate. Morris did rack up a very good 4.8 yards per carry in 2012, but his Rushing NEP per attempt was a fairly average 0.03. That did put him in seventh in Rush NEP per attempt among all running backs with more than 200 carries in 2012, but of all running back seasons since 2000, that's a tie for just 68th place within this efficiency metric. He simply wasn't an efficient runner, and got about what was expected of him and only a little more in the ground game.

I recently examined the effect that rushing quarterbacks have on their lead running backs, and specifically checked on the duo of Griffin and Morris. You can reference that article here. This is especially important here, as Morris’ volume dependency is potentially overshadowed by an even more damning notion: he needs the defense to be misdirected in order to be successful. The table below, from the aforementioned article, shows Griffin and Morris' rushing trend from 2012’s success to 2013’s collapse.

Player2012 Rush2012 Rush NEP2012 Rush NEP/P2013 Rush2013 Rush NEP2013 Rush NEP/P
Robert Griffin III11559.290.52837.620.09
Alfred Morris33610.850.03276-4.15-0.02

It seems that when his rushing quarterback's volume of rushes dropped, so did Morris'. When Griffin’s effectiveness slipped in the rushing game due to injury, so did Morris’. This isn’t a clear cause-and-effect, but the data suggests a decent correlation. So, what we’ve learned is that Morris is a back who needs volume of touches to be successful, as well as the presence of a legitimate rushing threat in his quarterback. Will he find these things return to 2012 levels in a Jay Gruden offense?

Gruden’s Game Plan

While Jay Gruden is known mostly as a passing-oriented coach, you may be surprised to note that in no year until last did his offense rank inside the top 10 in the league in passing attempts or passing yards. Gruden’s offense since 2011, when he joined the team, has actually averaged 455 rushing attempts per season. Only in 2012 did the team’s total rushing attempts fall outside the league’s top 10, and that was with a backfield committee of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, an injured Bernard Scott, Cedric Peerman, and Brian Leonard.

There is a remarkable consistency in Gruden’s offensive numbers: his lead back in 2011 and 2012 – Cedric Benson and Green-Ellis, respectively – had 273 and 278 carries in those seasons. Even last year, when Green-Ellis’s effectiveness started to slip and rookie Giovani Bernard began to ascend, the “Law Firm” still received 220 carries. Now, when we view these trends through our NEP data, they do look a little different, but there are still some things of note. In the table below, I listed each of the top two backs in Gruden’s Cincinnati offenses in carries. I also included each player’s Reception NEP, which is how much value each player added to their team on plays that resulted in a successful reception.

YearPlayerRush NEPRush NEP/AttemptRec NEP
2011Cedric Benson-22.62-0.082.58
2011Bernard Scott-6.93-0.06-3.08
2012BenJarvus Green-Ellis-4.54 -0.022.52
2012Cedric Peerman14.540.403.97
2013 BenJarvus Green-Ellis-17.96-0.08-0.58
2013Giovani Bernard-6.75-0.0432.45

Gruden has always seemed to have a clear “thumper” back who will carry the load most of the time, but cannot catch the ball whatsoever. Both Benson and Green-Ellis were fine as runners, though certainly not efficient or prolific without volume (sound familiar?), but they were downright putrid as receiving options. Interestingly, Gruden has seemed to pair a better pass-catcher with them (excepting Scott’s ugly line; Brian Leonard was the primary receiving back in 2011).

This truly reached a peak when Giovani Bernard joined the team and sparked the offense from the backfield. It’s also notable that last year was the most even split between his committee that Gruden has ever harbored: 220 carries for Green-Ellis, 170 for Bernard. Yet, Bernard’s 71 targets in the passing game – to Green-Ellis’s eight – pushed him well above the veteran in terms of opportunity.

What Does This Mean?

With a ceiling firmly capped around 270 rushes, it seems that Gruden will likely force Alfred Morris to be a more efficient and pile-pushing running back. Morris had 276 rushing attempts in 2013, so I expect about a similar final line and NEP results as long as RGIII is healthy. Gruden may not hesitate to run his backs, but he has a solid committee approach to his game. Washington’s Roy Helu, who had a Reception NEP of 11.56 last season, may see an uptick in work as a result of Gruden’s efficient passing attack. Morris will certainly cede looks to Helu on passing downs and hurry-up, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s used more as a early-down and goal-line bruiser.

It seems that Morris’ peak has already been reached, as his new coach Jay Gruden has a consistent and well-defined approach to his offense. After steadily improving the Bengals’ offensive rankings each season he was there, I can’t foresee him departing much from what works. With an eerily similar backfield personnel to what he left in Cincinnati, Gruden should reinvigorate the Washington offense, but at the likely expense of one Alfred Morris.