By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006
When the Washington Redskins acquired T.J. Duckett from the Atlanta Falcons in late August, the running backs vying for playing time with Clinton Portis were despondent. Rock Cartwright, the specialty back fighting for an opportunity, was near tears. Mike Sellers, the 6-foot-3, 278-pound fullback, was visibly angry, unclear of his role because the burly, higher-profile Duckett possessed many of the same skills.
Ladell Betts, Portis's immediate backup, was confused about his future but focused on the present. His contract was up at the end of the season and the status of negotiations was murky at best. Betts's strategy was clear: He would do what his football team asked him to do.
More than two months later, at the midpoint of the season, Duckett remains in limbo, and in associate head coach Al Saunders's new offense, Portis -- who in seven games has only twice carried the ball 20 times -- hasn't quite found his comfort level.
Meanwhile, in something of an odd turn, it is Betts, 27, who is having the best season of his career.
With eight games left, Betts has become a different player. His 26 receptions are nearly double his previous career high of 15, achieved in both 2003 and 2004. He has 223 yards receiving in eight games, topping his 2002 high of 167. Running the ball, he has 283 yards on 62 carries and is projected to have career highs in both rushes and yards.
"It's always been something that's come natural to me, as far as catching the ball. This coaching staff, I sense that coach Saunders seems to throw the ball to me more, which is something I haven't done a whole lot of in the past," he said. "I'll do whatever it takes. I'll do whatever they ask. If they want me to catch the ball, I'll catch the ball. If they want me to run it, I'll run it. I just do what they ask me to do, basically."
Behind Santana Moss, no Redskins player has caught more passes than Betts. Chris Cooley has two fewer receptions, but one more yard. While quarterback Mark Brunell has been criticized for not going downfield enough, for checking down to Betts instead of attempting lower percentage but potentially more explosive plays in the passing game, Betts has exploited defenses for big plays.
Sunday against Dallas, on third and five from the 10-yard line, Betts took a swing pass from Brunell and raced six yards to set up first and goal. Later in the game, on second and seven from his 36, Betts took a similar play 21 yards into Dallas territory.
"Ladell right now is playing at a very high level. He's stayed healthy, he's going extremely hard for us. He's a very good receiver coming out of the backfield. The one he caught in the flat was huge," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "That was a very big play. In the last three years, I think this is the best he's played."
With Portis being the undisputed main running back, Betts has tailored his game to maximize his value in Saunders's offense by becoming a major receiving threat.
"I think you're seeing a guy really blossom in the role that he has. It's a credit to his growth and maturity," Redskins running backs coach Earnest Byner said. "He's really taken to a lot of things we talk about in our room, and that includes leadership on this team and holding each other accountable, and he's been an exceptionally good guy in our backfield and has some of the better hands on our team. He runs really disciplined routes and he's really embracing this opportunity."
There is another benefit to Betts's receiving abilities: Should he and the Redskins be unable to work out a deal next season, Betts's value in the passing game will have increased his marketability.
"It gives me the chance to showcase the fact that I'm not just a runner, that I can catch the ball," Betts said. "Some running backs struggle with that, believe it or not, so this gives me the chance to diversify my game."
Nine running backs in the NFL have more receptions than Betts, and eight of them -- including the New York Giants' Tiki Barber and Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook -- are the featured running backs in their systems. Betts is a reserve who is developing into that pace-changing runner who is essential to most successful offenses.
"It's about touches, about getting the ball in space. And one of the reasons why Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson and Marshall Faulk were so successful was because of the variety of ways they could get the football," Saunders said.
Saunders said he did not have to sell Betts on changing his mind-set from a pounding running back to a more versatile one, but said Betts could immediately sense the value of having a diverse game because of his increased playing time.
"If you're a one-dimensional player, it's like being a one-dimensional offense. People catch up to you and you don't have any opportunities to expand," Saunders said. "Baltimore finds that out in the running game. Jamal Lewis is a one-dimensional player, so he hasn't had the opportunity to get the ball in a lot of different ways. We would like to get the ball to our backs in conventional and unconventional ways, and if you have skills to catch the football and play in space, instead of just running between the tackles, the menu is so much larger, and that's where Ladell fits in."