Alfred Morris plans to wander out to FedEx Field a few hours early Sunday, just as he did each game day over the past four years, to visit with the ushers and security guards he considers his “Stadium Fam.”
They’ll trade stories of all that has happened since the gang last got together in the far corner of the field, talk about summer vacations and children’s growth spurts, and bow their heads in prayer. Then Morris will duck back inside the stadium, head to the visitor’s locker room and change into his No. 46 jersey with a Dallas Cowboys star on each shoulder.
Rivalries may be the lifeblood of the NFL, but Morris, 27, the running back who twice earned Pro Bowl honors for the Washington Redskins only to become a free agent last offseason and picked up by Dallas in March, wants to play Sunday’s clash between the NFC East foes without turning his opponent into his enemy.
A gentle soul in a brutal sport, Morris is incapable of wishing ill on former teammates he still regards as friends. He also feels no animus toward the Redskins’ front office that made no effort to keep him on the roster, even though the decision triggered what he described as an “insulting” and “crazy” process of free agency in which he had to sell himself to potential employers such as Miami and Denver before Dallas offered a deal.
For a minute, Morris thought about asking Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan and Coach Jay Gruden why they’d decided to let him go. He’d rushed for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns as a rookie, playing an integral role in leading the team to an NFC East championship. Durability, reliability and humility had been his calling cards in the years that followed. He didn’t miss a game in four seasons, and he topped 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons.
But he decided against seeking an explanation.
What could words really add, after all, to the statement the Redskins had made over the 12 months leading up to the expiration of his four-year rookie contract? They’d chosen a massive young running back, Florida’s 6-foot-2, 232-pound Matt Jones with their third-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Then they pared back Morris’s carries.
“By the end of the year, I figured that my time there was gone,” Morris said. “I mean, [they] get different pieces in there, and you’re not the coaches’ guy, you’re not the GM’s guy, they draft a young guy.”
Even though veterans Santana Moss and DeAngelo Hall had warned him as a young player that the NFL was a business, Morris still hoped to be a Redskin his entire career. It was difficult to realize the team didn’t want the same.
“My first year, you have this idea of what the NFL is and think it’s all peaches and cream,” Morris said. “But when you get in, you are like, ‘Oh, this is a business.’ But you have to remember not to let that steal your joy.”
Even after it became clear that McCloughan didn’t see him in the team’s future, Morris didn’t lose sight of the fact that the Redskins had given him his NFL start, taking a chance with their sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft on a Florida Atlantic back whom pro scouts characterized as a “serviceable runner” but “not big enough (5-10, 224 pounds) to be imposing at the next level.
Grateful to the Redskins, Morris is also grateful to the Cowboys for picking him up, playing down the narrative of jumping to a division foe.
“I was a kid trying to keep a dream alive,” Morris said. “It just happened to fall to the rival team.”
When Morris signed, Dallas Coach Jason Garrett told him: “Hey, we’ve been trying to tackle you for the last four years. It’s good to have you on our side.”
Though one game is hardly a solid sample-size, Morris appears to be having a resurgence in Dallas, where the selection of Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick relegated him to the No. 2 back. But with Elliott struggling in the season opener against the New York Giants, Morris stepped in and averaged five yards a clip on his seven carries.
The following night at FedEx Field, Jones got off to a poor start in the Redskins’ 38-16 loss to Pittsburgh, dropped for no gain on his first carry. On his next carry, he lost four yards after running the wrong direction, confounding Washington’s offensive line. Jones finished with a 3.4 yard average on his seven carries.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins struggled to connect with his receivers, as well. And Morris caught an earful on Twitter from zealous Cowboys fans after tweeting “Let’s get going Captain Kirk” midway through the game. “Just because I’m on an opposing team doesn’t mean I’m not going to root for my friends,” Morris explained Wednesday.
But the criticism from irate Cowboys fans was overwhelmed by good wishes and nostalgic thoughts from Redskins fans disheartened by their own team’s anemic rushing output against the Steelers. Washington tallied just 55 yards on 12 carries, while throwing 43 times.
“Miss you on the skins,” one Redskins fan tweeted to Morris.
Other messages: “Why did you leave?” “First cowboy I will ever root for” and “All these guys are lost without you.”
Morris knows that the 80,000 at Fed Ex Field on Sunday might not be as kind. They may jeer; they may boo. He hopes not.
Either way, they won’t steal his joy.