The Redskins faced lots of injury adversity this season, and none more than the running backs group. Randy Jordan shares his thoughts on coaching a unit that was in constant flux.
Eventually, Randy Jordan runs out of names.
As he tries to recall, off the top of his head, every running back that's come through the Redskins organization this season, he ends up forgetting a couple. It's not easy to remember.
"We have about 30 of them," head coach Jay Gruden jokingly stated at Tuesday's press conference, and he's not as far off as you might initially think.
To be accurate, the Redskins cycled through nine running backs on the active roster in 2017, and that excludes Keith Marshall, who tore his ACL in training camp and was placed on Injured Reserve. That was a fate held by too many on the team – four of which came from the running back position group – and made preparing each week a challenging task.
Jordan admits he put in more work than usual this year as a position coach, giving out tips and reminders to a stable of young players, some of whom had just a few days to learn the Redskins' offensive scheme and playbook.
"I've been kind of spoiled," Jordan said following the last practice of the season. "When I first got here, Alfred [Morris] was the guy, he didn't need a lot of grooming and then you've got Chris Thompson who doesn't need a lot of grooming. You look at Fat Rob [Rob Kelley] and he's kind of the same way and then you look at the room and you go, 'I got a rookie, a guy that got here two weeks ago and then a guy that got here four days ago.' So to say the least, yes, I've had to put in more work than usual."
The unit's injuries happened throughout the season. Kelley injured his ribs in the second game against the Rams that limited him over the next few weeks and then suffered season-ending ankle and knee sprains against the Vikings. A few weeks later, Chris Thompson, then the team's leading receiver and rusher, fractured his fibula in New Orleans and is hoping to be ready before training begins this year. Replacements -- Byron Marshall and LeShun Daniels – both hit Injured Reserve in strange ways while returning kickoffs.
Then, after just two carries against the Giants in the final game of the year, rookie Samaje Perine injured his ankle and couldn't return, giving Kapri Bibbs (a replacement for the team's replacements) the rest of the carries in his third game. That's the way it went for a position group that seemed at the outset as the strongest it's been in years.
"It's been tough," Jordan said. "It's been probably more emotional, because I'm really close with all those guys. When I think about it I get choked up. Chris is such a good human being and such a good overall person that you hurt for a guy like that. He's made a lot of plays for us on the field, but the thing people really don't realize is the fact that his value is how he treats guys off the field and how he goes about his business each day like a consummate pro. People see that. And it rubs off. You look at the same with Fat Rob. We just had a special group in that room that I felt real, real comfortable with. And to see those two top guys go down it rips at you a little bit."
Without some of his veteran leaders in the room, Jordan, 47, had to take on an extra mentoring role in the final half of the season, trying to relate to 20-year olds in the best way he knew how.
"I'm always looking for that teaching moment," Jordan said. "No matter if you're a rookie, you're an eighth-year vet, you're a ninth-year vet, that's kind of how I'm wired. I'm always trying to share things I went through as a football player, I always try to share things with them outside the building that's going on in the world." In terms of initiating a running back into the offense, Jordan's work is more detailed. Take running back Kenny Hilliard, a training camp attendee that returned to the team in the final week of the season. Jordan first tested his recall of the offense, how much he had retained in the several months away from the team, and filled him in on some of the new plays and formations the team added in his time away.
During the short week of practices, Hilliard relayed which several plays he was most comfortable running if his number needed to be called. Jordan then highlighted them and took them to offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and head coach Jay Gruden, writing down Hilliard's number beside the play.
"I try to build a package around his comfort level," Jordan said.
The explanation is much simpler than the execution, especially when Jordan just has a couple of days to expedite a month's work of knowledge. It's tested Jordan and made him better aware of his own coaching acumen. He recounted a time when Bibbs recited back some information about a screen pass that reaffirmed Jordan's coaching and communication skills.
"Whenever they can give you back information and enforce what you've taught them and drill, as a coach it does make you feel good."
"I've been really impressed with our coaches, man," Gruden said. "They've been through a lot as far as having to get guys ready – different guys ready – on a day's notice, week's notice. Getting ready to play an NFL game is not easy."
Jordan will spend the next couple of weeks pouring over the game and practice tape, trying to differentiate and evaluate each running back's strengths and weaknesses, and doing so with varying amounts of footage. Jordan feels he has enough from the limited work time with them to fill out an effective report. For Kelley, Jordan said he may even go back to the 2016 season to get a better sense of his production.
"I'll look on special teams, and then I'll go back and look at practice and try to evaluate him as a player that way," Jordan said. "Call them touch tapes. Just look at him, see what he can do, how he compares to everybody else so I can give him a fair evaluation."
The Redskins will certainly have plenty of options in terms of which backs they'd like to see return to the team, to analyze which players made the most of their chances in the small windows they had to compete.
"My dad, who was a running back coach his whole life, he always said that durability is the most important trait and we've got to have somebody that can play and be available," Gruden said. "Easier said than done this day and age as physical as the game is and injuries happen, but it'd be nice to have a guy for 16 weeks pounding it. I hope he's on the roster. We'll see."