ASHBURN, Va. -- Even if the Washington Redskins really are as set at quarterback as they believe they are with the unheralded John Beck and the lightly appreciated Rex Grossman on the top two rungs of the depth chart, this is a team that has to run the ball, and run it with authority if it's going to compete with the quarterback-led offenses that dominate the NFC East (see Michael Vick, Eli Manning and Tony Romo).
And that's why it's not a stretch to say the newest Redskins running back, Tim Hightower, might just be one of the most consequential players in the division this season, because a good bit of Washington's fortunes are going to be riding on his 25-year-old shoulders.
"In my job as a running back, the hopes and dreams of this team are in my hands every single time I touch the ball,'' Hightower said Wednesday, after a long morning practice. In this case, he was talking specifically about his propensity for fumbling in the first three years of his NFL career, but he could have just as easily have been summing up the pivotal role he might wind up playing for a Washington team that doesn't figure to out-gun many opponents through the air in 2011.
The story is so much different for the Redskins this year at running back, but understandably so. Last season when Washington reported for head coach Mike Shanahan's first training camp in D.C., the depth chart featured Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson and Willie Parker, three veteran runners whose past clearly outshone their present or future. All are now gone, and in their place are Hightower, who came over via a late July trade with Arizona, last year's starter Ryan Torain, and a pair of rookie mid-to-late round draft picks in Roy Helu (4th round, Nebraska) and Evan Royster (6th round, Penn State).
With the injury-plagued Torain already out with a fractured left hand that will cost him up to 10 days of missed camp, Hightower has been front and center in the Redskins offense so far, and he's likely to get the bulk of the early work when Washington plays host to Pittsburgh in its preseason opener Friday night at FedEx Field. Shanahan and his son, Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, both say Hightower is perfectly suited to the team's zone blocking schemes, with the one-cut-and-head-up-field running style that typically prospered in the elder Shanahan's offense in Denver.
"He's a violent runner,'' Kyle Shanahan said. "He runs as hard as he can, gets to the line of scrimmage, and presses his cuts. And when he puts his foot down, it's violent, and he's getting downhill. He always gets tackled with his shoulders going north. He's exactly what we look for in this offense.''
Adds Mike Shanahan, whose Redskins run game ranked 30th in the NFL last season with a 91.3-yard average: "I've always liked his running style in the way he's strong and powerful. He's not afraid to turn up the field full speed, and he's one of the few guys, when he is going downfield and he breaks to the inside, he doesn't care who's inside. It could be a safety, it could be a linebacker. And most of those running backs, they shy away from those linebackers. He's fearless and he's got that type of mindset, so when he was available, I was very pleased.''
Beck, the odds-on favorite to win the Redskins' starting quarterback job at some point early this season, told me he was outside Shanahan's office the day the Hightower trade went down, and he described his head coach as more than just "pleased'' with the move.
"He had a big smile on his face coming out of there, because he felt like this guy is going to fit really well,'' Beck said. "After 27 years of doing this, he knows the kind of running back who fits this run game. And I'll tell you from a player's standpoint, he's had a couple runs this week where the players on the sidelines turn and look at each other like, 'I think we found a guy who's going to fit really well.' ''
Hightower started for the majority of time during his three seasons in Arizona after being a fifth-round pick in 2008, but the Cardinals clearly kept trying to replace him. They drafted Beanie Wells in 2009's first round, and added Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams in the second round this year, the move that likely sealed Hightower's fate. Still, Hightower has improved his rushing total every year, running for a career-best 736 yards and a 4.8 yard per carry average in 2010, finishing just behind's Torain's team-leading 742 yards for Washington, but ahead of his 4.5-yard average. Hightower's 23 career rushing touchdowns and 118 receptions, combined with his well-regarded blocking ability, appealed to a Washington front office seeking a three-down back.
"On grass with us, I think he can be an every-down back,'' Kyle Shanahan said. "Because he's definitely a first- and second-down runner, and he also has good hands, and he's fearless when it comes to blocking. He understands our pass schemes and he's got a chance to be a guy who doesn't come off the field. It might take a while for him to make the transition to us, but it's always going to be a faster transition when you've got a guy who doesn't flinch. He's not scared to put his face into anyone, and he's smart and he works at it. I think he'll be able to do it.''
Before his debut season with the Redskins, Mike Shanahan never coached an offense that averaged fewer than 116.4 yards rushing per game during his 14-year run leading the Broncos. You know the names featured in his assembly line of 1,000-yard backs in Denver -- Terrell Davis, Portis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, etc.. -- and Hightower does, too. Little wonder he sees the Redskins as the opportunity of a lifetime.
"It's a lot of stuff that I ran in college with the zone, inside zone and outside zone and a little bit power,'' he said. "So to me it's a dream come true getting to play in this offense in this kind of environment. I could sit here and try to say I don't know [about the statistics of those Denver rushers], but you can't help but look at all those guys and notice the success they had. For me it's a great, great opportunity, but I've got to make the most of it.''
The Redskins love the sound of Hightower's enthusiasm for blocking, because it's going to come in handy no matter if Beck or Grossman is in the pocket. Washington has allowed 46 sacks in each of the past two seasons (no matter if it was Jason Campbell or Donovan McNabb getting pounded), and Redskins QBs were hit an almost-unfathomable 110 times last year, tied with Jacksonville for most in the NFL.
"I love it,'' said Hightower, of his reliability when it comes to blitz pick-up. "I don't have to worry about holding on to the football and bracing for a hit. I get to deliver hits on all those guys who took those cheap shots, who hit me at the bottom of the pile. It was something coming in and playing with Kurt Warner [in Arizona], it was emphasized to me. If you don't block, if you don't protect Kurt Warner, you won't play. So I think I kind of got it.''
The part of Hightower's game that Washington is hoping doesn't make the transition to the East Coast is his reputation for putting the ball on the ground, which was a problem in the earliest days of Redskins camp. Hightower has fumbled 10 times in the past two seasons, losing eight. He has 12 fumbles in his three NFL seasons, and his five in 2010 ranked him among the league's top five in that dubious and career-killing category.
Hightower said his Cardinals running backs coach, Tommie Robinson, convinced him this summer to rely more on his instincts while running, and stop trying to over-think his every move. He's hopeful that his fumbling issues were tied to his over-analyzing, and vows to play freer this season. The Shanahans said they have already seen Hightower improve his ball security during the first week of camp.
"[Coach Robinson] told me a clouded mind [equals] slow feet,'' Hightower said. "I was always studying and trying to be perfect, and I wasn't being as aggressive as I know I could be, and I know I wanted to be. This summer I told myself when I got my opportunity to go out and play, wherever it was, I was just going to lay it out there every single snap and not try to be perfect, not try to do everything right. Just go out there and do everything as hard as I can and play with the passion and the gifts I've been given.
"I was trying to make the perfect cut, the perfect read, and think about ball security, think about all these different things. But the thing about a running back is, it's based on instincts. A lot of people say, 'Oh, he has good vision.' No, he has good instincts. The reason why I love watching Adrian Peterson play is that guy goes out there and plays [all-out]. He doesn't look like he's thinking about a whole bunch of stuff. He looks like he's going out there to run and run hard every single time, and that's what I'm focused on, too.''
Peterson last season curbed his penchant for costly fumbles in Minnesota, so maybe Hightower can correct the weak link in his game. With a passing attack that doesn't figure to be the strength of their team, the Redskins are relying on their running game to move the chains and help ease the inevitable burden that Beck and/or Grossman will face this season.
"In order to be good in this league, you have to be able to run the ball,'' Kyle Shanahan said. "I don't care how good you are throwing the ball, if you depend on that too much you're putting way too much pressure on your quarterback and your offensive line. [Hightower] knows the opportunity that's here for him, and I've been real encouraged just watching how he handles himself. We really liked him a lot in this market. There were a few choices out there, but we definitely got the guy we wanted.''