By Mike Wise
Sunday, August 20, 2006
I was watching Ladell Betts, scooting right, lowering his head, boring forward for five yards when he should have lost one. And I was thinking what an effective, move-the-sticks running back he is, a tuck-it-away Joe Gibbs kind of player who can run, catch and block enough to start for a number of NFL teams. Betts can't start for this one because Clinton Portis is too good when he's not hurt.
But that's beside the point, which is that Gibbs's offense can function with Ladell Betts. It can win without Portis. That can't be said about a half-dozen irreplaceable parts.
For instance, Mark Brunell can't go down and out. Simple as that. Did you see Jason Campbell and Todd Collins get picked off? Okay, so a fed-up Gibbs was portrayed as being as angry as he's ever been after a loss. The man who won three Super Bowls does not like to have a reverse run on him by a 35-year-old neophyte on the other sideline. Even in preseason. But before the masses groan about looking putrid against the Jets, they should pay attention to the larger picture: Mark Brunell did not get hurt, therefore Washington recorded a victory last night. This is all about able bodies.
And if Jon Jansen is not out there protecting Brunell's blind side, that's real trouble. There's no one to legitimately fill holes on the offensive line. Same with Cornelius Griffin, who absolutely can't be lost to injury again. When the news came that Griffin had sprained his right knee in the first quarter of the second preseason game, doomsayers winced and probably thought, "There goes the run defense."
The notion that the season rides on health and depth is not wrongheaded. But it's also half the story.
Because if Portis were to miss extended time, more than the next few weeks with a partially separated shoulder, it's not as much of an emergency situation. Yeah, Gibbs misses Portis's explosiveness and the offense becomes more predictable.
But Al Saunders, the man Gibbs hired to run the offense, loves short-yardage backs who will make three yards out of minus-1. Ladell Betts is that kind of back. Rock Cartwright, who plunged in from the 1 against the Jets for a touchdown, is that kind of back.
It's why they're still here, the longest-tenured players drafted by the organization after Jansen and Chris Samuels in 1999 and 2000, respectively. Betts and Cartwright went from the misery of the ol' ball coach to the majesty of the really ol' ball coach.
"Class of '02, that's us," Betts said earlier this week. "We've seen a little of everything in five years."
"When we got here, we had Coach [Steve] Spurrier and there wasn't much discipline," Cartwright said. "Just didn't feel like an NFL atmosphere, you know. Now, with Coach Gibbs, you can't even compare. Different world, man."
Different world. Same stubby, compact bruising duo, backing up the star.
Betts and Cartwright shared a two-bedroom apartment in Atlanta in the offseason. They worked out. Shopped, often ending up buying the same shirts and jeans. And they would end a lot of nights in some steel-cage death match of a video game, usually Madden NFL '06. "Music, clothes, we're just a lot alike," Cartwright said.
"There's no jealousy or ugliness between us competing for the same position. We're totally supportive. When I get married, Ladell is going to be the best man at my wedding."
Imagine being best friends with a guy whose professional goal was to take your job. Awkward? No, it's NFL reality, the same reality that allows two role-playing running backs to survive in a world of diva ballcarriers.
Like Portis, who wondered why a player of his caliber should even have been playing in the preseason last week. "I wouldn't say that bothers me," Betts said. "I understand a player with credentials feeling that way. He's entitled to his opinion. But I don't agree with that. There is a game speed you get in the preseason that's impossible to simulate in practice. We don't hit and tackle in practice like a preseason game.
"And the idea if you get hurt, you should get hurt in the regular season also doesn't make sense. I mean, you can get hurt in practice any day of the week. So we shouldn't practice? That's just me."
"Clinton's his own guy," Cartwright said. "But you don't get hit in camp like you get hit in a game. The way you get hit in a game shocks you, wakes you up, readies you for the real thing."
The Rock is biased, of course. He and Betts need the preseason to annually show they belong. Betts has to keep showing he's not brittle. He started last year in training camp, but missed four games with a knee injury. He missed seven games in 2003 with a fractured left forearm.
Cartwright doesn't expect a lot of carries, so he has to maintain his identity as a special teams monster whose edge and attitude are more responsible for his staying power than his 5-foot-7, 223-pound frame. When you're the 257th overall pick in the draft, you tackle and block who they tell you to.
The truth is, either one could end up playing a huge role this season. One of the easiest big-time positions to fill in the NFL is running back. The Seahawks got to the NFC championship game without NFL MVP Shaun Alexander, knocked out against Washington in the first quarter.
In Kansas City, Saunders plugged in Larry Johnson for Priest Holmes. Jamal Lewis became great when Holmes left Baltimore. Saunders employs two backs more often than Gibbs. It's conceivable Betts or Cartwright could be in there with Portis at the same time.
Either way, the offense survives the way the Class of '02 survived each preseason the past four years.
Betts said it best: "It's nice they kept us together. As we've grown in the NFL, so has the organization."