ASHBURN, Va. - Mike Shanahan made his name on the ground. During his 14 years coaching in Denver, the Broncos led the NFL in rushing while featuring six backs who gained at least 1,000 yards in a season.
Not coincidentally, Denver won two Super Bowls, made the playoffs six times and enjoyed nine winning seasons.
That kind of success has been much more elusive for Shanahan in Washington. The Redskins were 30th in rushing in 2010 and 25th in 2011. Their top two backs didn't total 1,000 yards in either season, with the team finishing 11-21.
So for all the hype about rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Redskins aren't likely to make a quantum leap in 2012 unless they get their running game going.
Veteran Tim Hightower was the starter when he tore his left ACL in Week 7 last year. Roy Helu took over and ran for 100 yards in three straight games before getting banged up. Fellow rookie Evan Royster stepped in and gained 100 yards in each of the final two contests.
So who's going to start this season? Hightower has the most experience and is the best at pass protection. Helu is the fastest and caught more than twice as many passes as his rivals combined in 2011. Royster had 5.9 yards per carry, which is significantly higher than Helu's 4.2 or Hightower's 3.9.
"I don't know who's going to be the tailback," Shanahan said. "I do know that I have three guys I have a lot of confidence in. With Tim coming off of an ACL, he's not even close to 100 percent, but I see improvement every day. Helu and Royster . they both did a great job last year, (but) they both have been hurt. Can a guy stay healthy when he does perform? Is he consistent?
"Some guys (are) more runners than pass protectors. If we can get a guy that can do it all, obviously we'd like to leave that guy in . all the time."
That sounds like Clinton Portis, their leading rusher in all but one season from 2004-09. But injuries took their toll and he was cut after the 2010 season.
The intensity of the job for NFL running backs has changed over the last decade. In 2001, 10 backs had at least 300 carries. In 2011, only two did.
"I don't know about the whole running back by committee thing," said Hightower, who's heading into his fifth season. "Some running backs may be better at certain things, may be better at blitz pickup, may be better between the tackles ... They're going to put the best guy on the field. I never want to come off the football field, but you also got to be smart and know that there are certain times where you don't give your team the best opportunity to win that situation."
Asked how long he envisions the starting jockeying to last, Helu said, "It goes `til February, absolutely."
Royster, who was glad to get a chance to play In December after spending 10 weeks on the practice squad, isn't greedy.
"If it ends up being a running back by committee thing, I don't think any of us would have a problem with that," he said. "We all have bright spots and we all have things that we need to work on. I can run the inside zone game pretty well. I need to work on the outside zone game and on pass protection."
But not on his instincts.
"He's got a little wiggle to him, maybe the best wiggle of anybody in our running back group," Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. "He's a good, solid dependable guy. We might be able to ride him all the way."
And Lichtensteiger's take on the three-way competition?
"It's a good problem to have, right?" he said with a smile.
Notes: Lichtensteiger, who's coming off a torn right ACL, was given a rest day on Saturday but wasn't on the field for Monday practice. Neither was reserve inside linebacker Jonathan Goff, who missed the last part of Saturday's practice with an injury to his right knee, the one with a torn ACL that sidelined him for all of 2011. S Tanard Jackson (strained calf), who was supposed to be activated from the physically unable to perform list on Monday, didn't work either.
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