Is the Alfred Morris Era in Washington Over?

Can incumbent Alfred Morris regain his lead in the polls, or is his time leading the Washington backfield done?

In catching up on The West Wing recently, now that my first brutal month of classes is out of the way, I watched an episode entitled “Epper Si Muove”. In this episode, First Lady Abbey Bartlet is trying to resume practicing medicine after voluntarily ending her practice due to a scandal. White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg suggests, “You need to go right to the people with this. Get outside of the cynical Washington echo chamber.” So, of course, C.J. arranges for the First Lady to appear in a medical episode of Sesame Street, and it’s a huge heartwarming moment that repairs her image to the public.

If only P.R. was that easy in real life.

Another public figure we know very well is trapped in the “cynical Washington echo chamber” right now, and that’s Washington running back Alfred Morris. Morris is a shockingly polarizing figure in NFL analysis and fantasy football right now, as there has been a coup of sorts in the nation’s capital. Rookie Matt Jones and second-year passing-down back Chris Thompson have really eaten into Morris’s previously locked-down bell cow position.

Has there been a changing of the guard in the nation’s backfield? Is the Alfred Morris era in Washington over?

18th and Potomac

For reference, 18th and Potomac in Washington, D.C. is in the southeast part of the city just a block away from the jail. It’s an intersection with no stoplight, and is far out of the way of the important places in the city, like the White House, Capitol Hill, and so on.

That’s about where Alfred Morris sits in the favor of his coaching staff and the hearts of fantasy owners right now.

Just one year after rushing for 1,074 yards and 8 touchdowns, Morris finds himself in full-blown committee, and the exits polls believe it’s unlikely this bill is going to see Capitol Hill again. What precipitated this fall from grace so quickly? Is this really Morris’s true talent we’re seeing right now, or will he bounce back?

Before we can answer those questions, we have to understand just what kind of trajectory his career has been up until this point. For that, we will look at his box score production (yardage and scores), but also his analytics production in terms of numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Morris’ rushing and receiving production since he joined the league in 2012, by yardage and touchdowns. 2015’s numbers are extrapolated based on current pace. What do our polls say?

Year Rush Rush Yd. Rec Rec Yd. Total TD
2012 335 1,613 11 77 13
2013 276 1,275 9 78 7
2014 265 1,074 17 155 8
2015* 237 883 13 51 0

By standard production, Morris is on-pace for career-lows in every category except for receptions. We can see that each year his rushes -- and therefore his yardage -- have slipped lower and lower since his incredible rookie season. However, his rushing efficiency has slipped from 4.8 yards per carry in 2012 to just 3.7 in 2015.

His receiving work has a different arc, as head coach Jay Gruden force-fed Morris the ball 26 times in his first year with the team in 2014, but that represents the high point of Morris’ value there. Even the touchdown column, which one would think Morris’s power-back style would be prolific at filling, finds itself completely empty.

Ways and Means

Now let’s look at Morris by our advanced analytics, and see the trajectory of his Rushing NEP and Reception NEP, as well as his ranks among running backs with at least 80 carries. Does this tell the same story as his raw on-the-field work?

Year Rush NEP Per-Play Rec NEP Per-Target
2012 10.85 (8th) 0.03 (t-8th) 2.63 (42nd) 0.16 (36th)
2013 -4.15 (23rd) -0.02 (t-21st) 3.95 (34th) 0.33 (20th)
2014 -11.86 (41st) -0.04 (t-27th) 6.69 (32nd) 0.26 (t-25th)
2015* -23.68 (47th) -0.10 (41st) -0.88 (49th) -0.06 (49th)

While it’s clear that diminished touches are cutting into Morris’s workload, it’s also clear that he just isn’t the kind of efficient runner he seemed to be early on in his career. Both his raw and per-play Rushing NEP have gradually declined each year, indicating that his loss of production is at least evenly his responsibility for a lack of efficiency as it is loss of touches.

We see his receiving value’s arc mirrored here, as added volume increases value through 2014, but then it plummets in 2015. You’ll also notice that one of the main factors in his per-target Reception NEP efficiency was the lack of volume. His 9 receptions on 12 targets in 2013 were a career-low, and thus he wasn’t menaced by drops and his rate stat wasn’t lowered.

And Yet It Moves

It’s clear that Morris just isn’t the same player we thought he was in his rookie year, and that kind of regression is a likely reason why he seems to have lost a step in our eyes. When we see nearly 2,000 yards rushing and double-digit touchdowns, we set a certain level of expectation that he was unlikely to ever meet again anyway. In addition, the loss of Robert Griffin III as the starting quarterback means defenses don't have to fear the read-option, which is where Morris thrived. Now, however, there is more talent in the Washington backfield that will ensure he doesn’t make it to that production.

Our own Aaron Watson profiled Matt Jones after he was selected in the 2015 NFL Draft, and recommended, “While Jones will likely play the Roy Helu passing downs role in 2015, his versatility and youth could earn him a starting role in 2016.” Despite Jones’ current 52nd rank among running backs in per-play Rushing NEP, he ranks 16th in per-play Reception NEP, and is more versatile as a lead than Morris. Aaron also notes in his piece that Morris was waiting on an extension to his rookie deal, which expires after 2015; he’s still waiting, which could make him expendable for Washington if he continues to struggle.

Now, Aaron was partially right in that he called Jones a “powerful, big running back who can run and explode through contact and move the chains,” but he pegged him for the Helu role for 2015. That role has been seized by Thompson, and he’s wrangled that to a 10th-place standing in raw Reception NEP among backs with at least 25 opportunities (rushes plus targets), as well as a 15th-place standing in per-target Reception NEP.

That said, the offices in Washington seem to be filled, and it appears Morris is in a lame-duck period until his term expires, despite out-touching Jones and Thompson 78 to 58 to 31 for this year. Jones appears to be the face of the backfield for the future, and his running mate Thompson is secure in his role as the passing-down and catch-up back.

It’s a shame to see him fall from grace, but perhaps Morris can give Sesame Street a call. They’ll definitely give him another chance to get outside the Washington echo chamber, and maybe carry on his career in 2016.