At some point during the 2012 season, you’ll receive a phone call from Washington. You won’t recognize the area code, but you’ll be startled by the name.
It’ll be Mike Shanahan, and he’ll want you to start at running back in an upcoming game. You’ll tell him that your only touchdowns were scored during recess, and you’ve never actually played organized football. You’ll tell him that the extent of your daily physical activity is your walk to work, and your repeated reaching for Hot Rods and Slim Jims. You’ll tell him that you don’t even really know what a running back is, and that you’ve just pretended to like football all of these years for social purposes, and because it seemed like a nice alternative to soccer, a sport that’s had its sexuality seriously questioned.
None of it will matter. You’ll rush for 152 yards with two touchdowns in a triumphant win, and be crowned another Shanahan hero. Then several days later mad Mike will place another call, and the cycle will begin anew.
That’s a tale that feels like it’s barely exaggerated, and it’s confusing why there’s any significance attached to reports in June that Tim Hightower will be the Redskins’ starter in 2012. The committee approach to the offensive backfield is becoming a common one around the NFL, but no one assembles and rotates that committee quite as freely as the Redskins.
Example: two years ago Ryan Torain had 742 rushing yards on just 164 carries (4.5 yards per carry) while filling in for an injured/ineffective/old and awful Clinton Portis. At the time we still weren’t quite sure what would become of Torain given Shanahan’s addiction to stockpiling running backs and a belief that his zone blocking scheme powers the running game, and the running backs just, well, run. But it seemed like a reasonable assumption that Torain would be featured in some capacity.
Then the ‘Skins signed Tim Hightower, drafted Evan Royster, and watched as Roy Helu emerged. Torain? He was released in December. Now it seems Hightower may become the latest RB to be churned through the Shanny running machine. Time will tell whether or not he’s in one piece when he’s spit out.
According to Pro Football Weekly, there’s a good chance Hightower will be named Washington’s starting RB heading into training camp, and barring a major stumble he’ll be atop the depth chart in Week 1 too. The confusion here is understandable since Hightower suffered a torn ACL in Week 7 last year, allowing Roy Helu and then Evan Royster to step up in his absence. At the very least, the wiser strategy would be to ease Hightower in at first with a time share, and as ESPN’s Dan Graziano writes, that will likely happen.
But beyond that phase-in period, recent history tells us that there’s still little reason to believe Hightower’s starter tag is much more than a title. With Hightower sort of, kind of, but maybe not really healthy early last season he received only eight carries during a Week 4 win over St. Louis, and he watched as Torain (yep, him again) ran for 135 yards and a touchdown, averaging 7.1 yards per carry.
Then when he was gone for the year, Helu had 334 rushing yards over a four-game stretch, and during a Week 6 loss to San Francisco he had 14 receptions (!!!) for 105 yards. When the next domino fell and Helu missed a game and then was limited in the season finale against the Eagles, Royster rushed for 245 yards over two games. The coins keep getting inserted in Shanny’s backfield, and the merry-go-round keeps rolling while the rider remains an interchangeable figure.
Hightower may be the starter now, and he may be the starter in Week 1. But during that easing in process following his injury, a hot hand will emerge, and his name might not be Hightower. That’s when the committee shuffle will begin again, with a new set of hot hands nearly every week.