The expression that flashed across Adrian Peterson’s face — the furrowed brow, narrowed eyes and a smirk — gave away his answer to a question that he seemed to consider obvious. Yes, he is a man re-energized.
Peterson’s role this season has been a bit perplexing. The future Hall of Fame running back was a healthy scratch in the season opener at Philadelphia, when coach Jay Gruden prioritized an extra special teams player over Peterson. After Derrius Guice had surgery to repair a torn meniscus suffered in the Eagles game, Peterson returned to the starting role he had last season, only to see the team record the third-fewest rush attempts in the NFL through five weeks.
It was a departure from last season, when Peterson, a power back who is more effective with the more carries he has, was named the team’s offensive MVP after rushing for more than 1,000 yards. But all of that is poised to change now that offensive line coach Bill Callahan has been promoted to interim head coach following Jay Gruden’s firing Monday, saying that he wants to instill a run-first mentality on offense.
The No. 1 benefactor from the change figures to be Peterson.
“I’m hyped about it,” Peterson said. “You look at the first four weeks ... totally opposite from what we did last year when we were able to be more successful as a team. Like I’ve said, obviously something isn’t working so there needs to be some kind of change. It feels good to have this change.”
The Redskins have averaged just 17.6 attempts per game, after averaging 25.9 a year ago. Some of the discrepancy can be attributed to the team falling behind and needing to throw the ball to catch up. But Peterson said there have been opportunities to establish more of a rhythm in the running game that the team didn’t take.
Peterson pointed to a 7-yard first-down run late in the first quarter of Sunday’s loss to the New England Patriots called “14 structure” that he nearly broke loose on. Defensive lineman Lawrence Guy was originally cut to the ground, but got up and pulled Peterson down by the tail of his jersey.
“It was that close,” Peterson said, snapping his fingers. “I don’t see that play again till the next quarter. It’s like, gawd, I’m in a rhythm, I’m feeling it and you just simmer back down on the sideline just anxiously waiting to get back in there to get that look again. Now, I know how Bill loves to run the ball. He might line right back up and run it again. So it’ll be a different mind-set for the guys up front and we’ll be able to set the tone.”
Callahan has said that he wants to see more rush attempts out of the offense, and there is more to the strategy than him simply being an old-school coach looking to return to the days of three yards and a cloud of dust. This team doesn’t have the aerial weaponry to throw the ball all over the field the way some NFL offenses can, especially with tight end Jordan Reed still out with a concussion. Rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin has been a pleasant surprise, but the other pass-catchers have been lacking, and the team still doesn’t have an established starting quarterback. Callahan has said he’ll announce his starter for this Sunday’s road game at Miami on Friday.
The hope is a more consistent dedication to the run game will put the team in better down-and-distance situations. Being in third-and-long often has contributed to Washington’s 31st-ranked third-down conversion rate of 24 percent. And an inability to stay on the field has led to more plays for the defense, as the Redskins average the third-lowest time of possession in the NFL at 26 minutes, 31 seconds.
“We all know we’re going to have to throw the football at some point. This is the National Football League, and you’re going to have to throw the football to win,” Callahan said. “But I do think running the ball sets an attitude, sets a physical style, it sends a message, and it puts confidence in your line and your backs. It takes a little bit more pressure off the quarterback as well.”
The team is averaging 3.9 yards per carry, a total inflated by last week’s 65-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Steven Sims. But Callahan said he is more concerned with the number of run attempts and pass completions Washington has.
“If you have more than an opponent, really you’re in good shape to win the football game,” Callahan said. “It’s a very high percentage — I think it’s over 80 percent. ... It’s not always perfect. ... It’s just an identity that I believe in. So if we can combine those two and create big plays off of it, I think we’ll be successful.”
Peterson and the offensive linemen seem happy with the new direction.
“To grow up being an offensive lineman, you kind of have to have that in your DNA,” guard Wes Martin said, “to enjoy coming off the ball and moving people against their will. So, yeah, we enjoy that.”
Martin (chest), linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons (hamstring) and Reed (concussion) did not practice Thursday. Offensive tackle Donald Penn (hamstring) was limited, along with tight end Vernon Davis (concussion), tackle Morgan Moses (shoulder), safety Deshazor Everett (ankle) and guard Brandon Scherff (ankle).
The Redskins announced Wednesday that they have promoted Phil Rauscher to offensive line coach and hired Aaron Stamn as an offensive assistant.