It's Getting Crowded in The Backfield
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
They were seventh-round draft picks, players with catchy nicknames and plenty of doubts about their potential. But Washington Redskins running backs Nehemiah Broughton and Rock Cartwright have other things in common -- a bulldozing style, a studious approach, the knack for contributing on special teams and a battle for a roster spot.
"We have a lot in common," said Cartwright, a 5-foot-7, 215-pound running back who is in his fourth season after playing at Kansas State. "We're very hungry. Being a seventh-round draft pick, there's no place to go but up."
The Redskins drafted Broughton in April from The Citadel, hoping that the 5-11, 255-pounder nicknamed "Nemo" would improve the team's performance in goal-line and short-yardage situations. With a new guy with similar talents coming in, Cartwright asked running backs coach Earnest Byner to watch tapes of him from the 2003 season.
"So I did," Byner said. "I saw it before, but it kind of reminded me about a side of Rock I really liked. It's what we're looking for in Nemo: a guy who has power and can get yards on his own."
Now, both are vying for the spot as the team's third tailback, the one who will specialize in short-yardage runs. And the loser likely will be waived before the regular season opener.
"It's going to be tough," Coach Joe Gibbs said.
Their performances in Saturday's 28-10 preseason loss to the Carolina Panthers showed just how fierce the competition is. Broughton had seven carries for 28 yards and scored on a one-yard run. His longest run was 14 yards, but his most impressive quality was his ability to plow forward after being hit.
After the game, when reporters gathered around Broughton, tailback Clinton Portis said: "Nemo, I've already talked to coach and we're trading you for one of those team buses out front. We can't have this."
Cartwright had four carries for 14 yards (a 3.5-yard average) and led the team with four pass receptions for 47 yards (including a 24-yarder). His best season came in 2003, when his conversion rate on third and one was 11 for 14, one of the best rates in the NFL. And Cartwright led the team with four rushing touchdowns (each of less than three yards). "All I can tell you is to go to the  tape," said Cartwright, who converted from fullback in 2004 because Gibbs doesn't use players at the position. "The tape doesn't lie. Now I just have to show guys that I deserve to be here."
The Redskins' offense scored only six rushing touchdowns last season and sputtered within the 5-yard line. The lack of production was unusual for Gibbs, whose teams previously averaged 18 rushing touchdowns in non-strike-shortened seasons. Broughton believes he can help.
"The goal-line situation is just a whole different mind-set. It's like a do-or-die situation," Broughton said. "Emotion turns up, adrenaline pumps up. It's just hard work. I'm just getting behind my linemen and powering through. [The defense] is coming full tilt, so you see the hole and go."
Said Cartwright, whose first name is Roderick: "The main thing is to hold onto the ball when you get near the end zone. The speed and intensity of the game tremendously increases. Guys are working extra hard because they don't want you to get in. You can't run east or west. You have to go straight ahead. That's something that I love to do."
At the start of training camp, spectators found Broughton's nicknam e so catchy that they shouted it almost whenever he touched the ball. A college teammate gave Broughton the nickname "Nemosapien" during his freshman season and it was shortened to Nemo. "I had the name before the movie" "Finding Nemo" came out in 2003, Broughton said. "But the next year it was crazy. . . . Everybody had fun with it."
This year, the Redskins are expected to be more specialized in running situations. Ladell Betts is Portis's backup, but the third tailback will frequently go in when the team needs only a yard or two. Last season, the Redskins kept three tailbacks, but Gibbs yesterday said there was a slim chance he'd keep four, especially if Broughton and Cartwright flourish on special teams.
Despite the competition, Cartwright and Broughton are friends partly because of their backgrounds. Cartwright was one of the first players to greet Broughton when he arrived at Redskins Park soon after the draft.
"I know we're battling for a spot," Broughton said, "but Rock has been a help. He came in and let me know that he was a seventh-round pick. Right then, we clicked."
Broughton didn't generate much interest after graduating from North Charleston High in South Carolina. Only schools such as East Tennessee State, Morgan State and South Carolina State made scholarship offers. But Broughton became only the third player drafted from The Citadel and the first since 1995, when the Green Bay Packers chose tailback Travis Jervey in the fifth round. Likewise, Cartwright -- who has heard opponents call him "butterball" or "bowling ball" -- has been underrated since high school.
The biggest advantage Broughton seems to have on Cartwright is four inches in height. But Cartwright -- who stresses that he is 5-7 3/4 -- views his build as a plus: Linebackers sometimes can't spot him, and being low to the ground makes him difficult to tackle.
"Size has nothing to do with it," said Cartwright, whose grandmother gave him the nickname Rock when he was a child. "The heart is the biggest muscle."