With rookie minicamps starting for so many teams through this weekend, there will be hundreds of young men new to the NFL who are convinced that the league sold them short. And every season, a few rise up from the rabble to become the new "How did THAT guy last THAT long in the draft?" stories. Perhaps the most glaring example that the 2012 draft was not an exact science came from former Florida Atlantic running back Alfred Morris, selected in the sixth round by the Washington Redskins. Morris ran for 3,506 yards and 27 touchdowns in three seasons for the Owls, but the team went 1-11 in his last year there, and 1-11 in the Sun Belt doesn't get you a lot of looks at the next level.
But Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan, who had a bit of success with another sixth-round running back in Terrell Davis, took a shot, and off Morris went. After decent preseason performances against Buffalo and Chicago, he ran for 107 yards against the Colts, which had Shanahan thinking he'd seen enough. He told Morris that he'd be the starting halfback the day before the season opener against the New Orleans Saints, and that proved to be a wise decision. Morris ended his rookie campaign with a franchise-record 1,613 rushing yards on 335 carries, including a 200-yard, three-touchdown performance in the regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys that clinched Washington's first NFC East title since 1999. Quarterback Robert Griffin III was the marquee rookie, but Morris gave just as much with far less fanfare.
So, when I spoke with Morris during his recent media blitz for a DirectTV sponsorship, I asked him what he'd tell this year's class of rookies who believe that they've been undersold for whatever reason.
"Don't go in with a chip on your shoulder -- at least, I couldn't have done it that way," he said. "Don't go in looking to prove anything. You just be who you've been since Day 1, and you'll catch their eye. Hard work pays off. You stay focused, you stay positive, and don't get down just because things didn't go the way you expected them to go. It's gonna be a grind, and when you get that opportunity, you make the most of it."
It was a gradual process for Morris -- he started the preseason in competition with the usual battery of running backs, and ended it as the de facto man in charge.
"As things progressed, I became a better ballplayer," he remembered. "My coaches were staying on me -- teaching me instead of just yelling at me. 'This is how you do it better,' and I became better. So, stay focused, and the hard work will pay off. I can definitely attest to that, because I busted my butt, and I came from nowhere, but I got an opportunity, and I made the most of it."
Like most rookies who prove their worth beyond their draft position, Morris was never told by anyone in the league why he had to wait so long. There were 11 backs taken before him in the 2012 draft, and none of those players -- including third overall pick Trent Richardson -- came close to his productivity. Morris had a few dings on his scouting reports that really didn't make sense in retrospect. Some said that he didn't have the burst to hit the edge with authority, when he did that quite a bit in the NFL. Others questioned his ability to run quickly through one-cut gaps, which he did about as well as any back who's ever played in Shanahan's well-established zone-blocking system. And, of course, there's always the default small-school question.
"I didn't have anyone [explain it]; I was just grateful for the opportunity," Morris said. "I was just thankful to Coach Shanahan, and the Redskins organization. I guess from some people's perspective, they took a chance on me, and it turned out really great. I knew that the scouting reports weren't accurate as far as who I was, and that happens when you go to smaller schools. I felt that I could have gone to any school -- Alabama, West Virginia, or the other big programs -- and done just as good. But none of [the big-school backs] could have come into my position at FAU and done what I did. That's not me being arrogant or anything like that; I'm just confident in myself, and I'll stand by that any day."
As confident as he was, it was still a thrill -- and a bit of a shock -- to hear that he'd be the Week 1 starter.
"He said, 'You stay in as long as you want, and if you feel like you need a breather, you come out of the game,'" Morris said of Shanahan's talk with him. "But he just gave me the reins, in a sense. Testing the waters, and I went out there and had a pretty decent game. You're supposed to have jitters as a rookie, but I was having fun. It turned out really good, and the more the year rolled on, and the more they trusted me, they just told me to stay in there and keep going at it.
"I felt great -- it was like, goosebumps. I was finally seeing the fruits of my labor. FAU was rough. We were at the bottom of the barrel. Everything I got through high school and college was earned. So, I was excited and happy. I didn't worry, didn't care -- I just had fun."
While Morris gained 98 yards and scored two touchdowns against the Saints to start the season, it was really the Week 4 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he caught fire. That game also saw Griffin's highest passing yardage total of the season (323 yards), and illustrated perfectly the hand-in-hand relationship between what Griffin's mobility did to defenses, and how Morris' unexpected speed/power combination filled in the gaps. Morris knew that his new quarterback was going to be something else based on his college tape, but Griffin didn't really come alive for his teammates until the first practices.
"I didn't watch him closely like a fan would, but we were always talking about him," Morris said about his recollections of Griffin back in college. "And it's one thing to see a guy on TV, and then you see him in person ... it was totally different, like, 'This guy really is that good!' Even in OTAs, when I was just observing everything, I kept saying, 'Damn, that was impressive,'"
Still, as impressive as the rookies were, the Redskins started out with a 3-6 record before their bye week in early November. Whatever happened in that extra week off, Shanahan should look to patent it -- his team rolled off a seven-game winning streak to end the regular season. For Morris, that two-month span was the best example of teamwork he's ever seen.
"That was the most memorable part of the season, because a group of individuals couldn't have done that -- not in the National Football League. It took a group of selfless, talented athletes to put team first, and I feel like that's when it started to gel. Everyone was about team, team, team. The individual accolades went on the back burner, and that was our mindset."
Of course, Griffin's Dec. 9 knee injury against the Baltimore Ravens, and the subsequent injury in the playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks, have Redskins fans worried whether RG3 will be ready for the start of the 2013 regular season. According to Morris, the Redskins faithful can cool their jets.
"He's ahead of schedule," Morris said. "I did some interviews after the season, and people thought I was crazy, but I said, 'That guy's gonna be back.' He's running, he's throwing -- not with the team, but he's working with the trainers, and he's looking great. I have no doubt he'll be back for Game 1. It's going to be his call, in a sense. I know he doesn't want to jeopardize his health coming back for that first game, but if he's confident ... he's going to be smart about it because he wants to play 10-plus years in this game."
For Morris, the challenge is to improve on a rookie season nobody saw coming. And the process of "becoming a better me," as he put it, starts with the little things.
"I'm going to run hard and give you 100 percent on every play because every play could be my last, but I left a lot of yards on the field last year. Looking back on film, a lot of it was my aiming points in certain runs, or I was too tight and I couldn't get outside. Being more patient with my cutbacks -- I tended to cut back too soon. I was blessed, and I definitely don't take it for granted. Last year's behind me -- I'm beyond that."
Of course, no interview with Morris would be complete without a check on the status of his famous car -- the 1991 Mazda that has received almost has much press as he has. Back in his rookie season, Morris insisted that "if it breaks down, I'm gettin' it fixed. That's just how I am." Now, that appears to be exactly the case.
"It's in the shop right now -- just a little maintenance on the radiator when the season ended, and I'm getting the axle fixed," he said. "It was making the front of the car wobble. And I'm getting the AC redone. I should have it back by next week, so I'm not worried. I'm driving a rental car right now."
Morris also insisted that even down the road, when he signs that lucrative second contract (he's set to make $480,000 in Year 2 of a four-year, $2.223 million deal), he'll still be behind the wheel of that vintage ride, as long as she co-operates.
"I know that eventually, I'll have to park it, but I want to keep it as long as possible. I know people call me cheap, but I'm being smart. There's no reason to go out there and waste money -- instead of spending that on me, I can help bless somebody else. There are so many needs out there, so to waste money on a car when I have one that runs perfectly ... I have a heart for others, so as long as my needs are met, I'm fine."
Sounds like a man who understands true value. If only the teams who passed him by in the draft understood that same concept...