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Redskins Begin Search For Next Franchise Back

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There is lore. There is legend. There are facts.

They don't always dovetail.

In the wake of the departure of Clinton Portis, it's important to look at the Redskins' reputation as a running team. Sure, every video with John Riggins or Portis in it reinforces the image but the hard reality of today tells another story.

The Redskins ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing offense during the 2010 season. That's 30th of 32 teams. They've not come so close to scraping the hull on the ocean floor since since the 1973 Redskins ranked 25th in a 26-team league.

The Redskins' running game provided many hits over the years but was also hit and myth. Dating to the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, the franchise never led the NFL in total offense. Never topped the NFL in rushing. No Redskin has led the NFL in rushing since Larry Brown in 1970. That's not to say some Redskins teams over the years weren't explosive and dangerous either by ground or air. That impact and efficiency showed up in scoring offense, in which the Redskins led the NFL in 1983 and 1991, both seasons that resulted in trips to the Super Bowl.

Thirtieth in rushing last season and 27th the one before, in no small part due to the absence of the injured Portis for much of it. He missed the last eight games with a concussion in '09 and 11 games with groin and abdominal tears in 2010 and injuries hindered his backups in both seasons as well.

In 2008, when the last best parts of Portis' performances played out, he finished fourth in the NFL in rushing with 1,487 yards and scored nine rushing touchdowns. The Redskins ran for nine total touchdowns last season. As a team in 2010, the Redskins, with 13 players credited with at least one running play, gained 1,461.

Head coach Mike Shanahan got plenty of mileage out of Portis during two seasons with the Denver Broncos and then relied on a series of backs of lesser pedigree, backs who worked behind a nasty and aggressive offensive line. The linemen would cut-block and the running back would make one decisive move and bolt upfield. It seemed simple and brutally effective and Terrell Davis, formerly a sixth-round pick, wound up rushing for 2,008 yards in this scheme in 1998.

More than a little assembly goes into the running game. Denver built the line and plugged in the backs. The Redskins are still in the front-end stage of constructing the line and determining whether they've got the plug-in.

A little more than a year ago, once the Redskins had drafted tackle Trent Williams in the first round, they spent the off-season working with this lineup (from left to right):  Williams, Derrick Dockery, Casey Rabach, Mike Williams, Artis Hicks. In late July, Mike Williams was ruled out for the season due to blood clots near his heart; offensive line coach Chris Foerster estimated that group had taken some 1,200 snaps together.

Hicks moved inside to right guard to replace Mike Williams. Jammal Brown, acquired in a mid-June trade, became the right tackle, though he had mostly played the left side with the New Orleans Saints before missing the '09 season with a hip injury and surgery. Before the 6-10 campaign concluded, Dockery and Hicks had lost their starting roles at guard to Kory Lichtensteiger and Will Montgomery. This remake was taking place on the fly in front of a shaky backfield, with Portis essentially done and his heir, Ryan Torain, endlessly iffy with hamstring issues.

Some of the offensive linemen got better with time and experience. Depth remains an issue. Cohesion and continuity only come with time. It improves if the back is a constant.

A runner with power and fire and quickness into the hole can often hide some of the weaknesses up front and make his offensive line better. It's not at all clear the Redskins have that player yet.

Torain showed the ability to get his shoulder turned and to put that shoulder into defenders. He averaged 4.5 yards a carry and gained 724 yards even though he wasn't on the opening-day roster. Undrafted rookie Keiland Williams stepped in and stepped up in spots and showed an affinity for his role as a receiver. There wasn't much to see or say beyond that.

The first rule of competition in the NFL is to be able to handle your division teams – stop what they do best and do what you do best. There's still quite a sentiment in the NFC East for the ground game.

The New York Giants, who missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record, ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing. The Philadelphia Eagles, who won the division, were fifth. The Dallas Cowboys, like the Redskins a disappointing 6-10, finished 16th. The Redskins have ground to make up in the ground game.

Portis, when healthy, made the Redskins as dangerous, though not to the level that legend and lore suggest. They were a playoff team twice in his seven seasons and he deserves full credit for literally toting them to the postseason in 2005. He accepted his assignments and his roles, ran hard and blocked well.

The good teams always say "Next man up" in case of injury or substitution. And now, so must the Redskins. They've got glory to recapture and recreate.


Larry Weisman, an award-winning journalist during 25 years with USA TODAY, writes for Redskins.com and appears nightly on Redskins Nation on Comcast SportsNet. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at Redskinsrule.com and follow him on Twitter.com/LarryWeisman.

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