September 20, 2020

OPINION: For Washington Redskins, time to say ‘hello’ to Helu

With the 1-5 Washington Redskins off to a poor start (yet again), it’s not too early to start considering changing things up. Jay Gruden indicated as much in his press conference Monday, saying that the coaching staff would look into doing just that. When later asked if that meant potential personnel changes or certain players getting more playing time, he responded, “Yeah, that’s something to take into account. We have to look at that. We have to look at the guys that aren’t playing. There’s a reason why we have the guys in front of them, but we’ll see if there’s a way we can upgrade our roster.”

He went on to say that the primary changes to which he was referring involved meetings and practice routines, but nonetheless, with a team playing as poorly as the Redskins are, the door should be open to less prominent players getting more playing time. One such player is running back Roy Helu.

Roy Helu could be the boost the Redskins need on the ground. (Photo by Brian Murphy)

Roy Helu could be the boost the Redskins need on the ground. (Photo by Brian Murphy)

Among a litany of problems that have plagued this team to start the season (poor special teams, turnovers, etc.), one of the biggest has been the offense’s inability to effectively run the football. With highly productive running back Alfred Morris, four returning starting offensive linemen, and the retention of the same stretch-zone running style that worked so well in 2012 and 2013, the run game was supposed to the strength of this offense in Gruden’s first year as they adjusted to a new passing system. After six games, here’s where they stand:

99.3 rushing yards per game as a team (23rd)

64.3 rushing yards per game for Morris (14th)

4.0 yards per carry for Morris (30th among qualified players)

That’s hardly what you’d consider a strength.

But how has this happened? Morris is supposed to be one of the best young running backs in the league. After all, coming into this season only one other player had rushed for more yards since Morris came into the league in 2012. But while that’s true, did you know that since Nov. 7 last year, Morris has only averaged 3.81 yards per carry? That’s a span of 13 games. Yuck.

Now while most of those games were played with Kirk Cousins at quarterback and Morris is statistically worse when that happens, shouldn’t a top-tier running back be able to play well regardless of quarterback? After all, most running backs would have success when complemented with Robert Griffin III’s ability to run (and thus open up defenses), but a good running back shouldn’t need that to be successful, right?

Certainly other factors may be at play here. Defenses evolving and figuring out how best to attack the stretch-zone or just general regression in the offensive line’s ability to block to name a few.

But a player that has had surprising success this season running the ball is Helu, Morris’ backup. He hasn’t gotten much opportunity, but he’s looked good in small doses and has been the team’s best threat catching the ball out of the backfield (17 receptions for 258 yards). It’s a small sample size of course but Helu has managed 20 carries for 105 yards in his limited opportunities, good for an average of 5.25 yards per carry (an elite number if sustained for a full season).

While certainly you’d expect that number to go down if he got more carries, it’s interesting to note that Helu averages 4.34 yards per carry for his career. Not bad, but certainly less than Morris’ career 4.62 mark. But consider the boost Morris got by getting the bulk of the carries in the explosive revolutionary zone-read offense that took the league by storm in 2012 alongside Griffin. Morris averaged 4.81 yards per carry that season as Helu missed most of the year due to injury.

Outside of that highly productive first year, Morris has averaged 4.45 yards per carry for his career, only .11 greater than Helu’s career mark.

While Helu may lack Morris’ patience in the run game, he’s the superior athlete with greater speed and explosiveness. His impressive 4.42 40-yard dash time at the 2011 NFL Combine was 13th fastest of all participants (6th among running backs). Helu also has the ability to catch balls out of the backfield, a facet of the game that Morris really struggles with, but something Gruden wants for his offense (See: Bernard, Giovani). And at only 25, he’s still young and has minimal wear at a position that seems to age players quicker than most.

Should Helu be the new starting running back for the Washington Redskins? Probably not. After all, Gruden said it best, “There’s a reason we have the guys in front of them.” But should Helu get more opportunities and be featured more prominently? It couldn’t hurt, especially for a team looking for a spark in the run game.

About Joe Miller

Joe Miller is a Staff Writer for District Sports Page covering the Redskins. Joe is a southern Maryland native and an alumnus of the University of Maryland with a degree in communication. He’s been a passionate follower of D.C. sports, especially the Redskins, his entire life. Joe works for the Bowie Baysox and contributes content for Son of Washington. You can follow Joe on Twitter @JoeCoolMiller.

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