By Les Carpenter
Monday, November 20, 2006
TAMPA You would think this decision was simple.
The Redskins have in their employ a running back who has proved in his career to be fearsome near the end zone, who has a reputation of being so strong that the first attempt at a tackle will usually not hold him. This running back did not come to them cheaply, probably costing them a third-round pick in next year's draft and a fourth-round pick in 2008.
But even worse is that this running back with bulldozing shoulders and a steep price barely plays. Most weeks he sits unused.
This happens not because he has blown assignments, missed meetings, broken rules or committed any of the other infractions that lock a player of T.J. Duckett's talent to the bottom of the depth chart.
Rather, the Redskins simply decided after trading for him that they didn't need him. They had acquired him as a late-summer emergency replacement for Clinton Portis. And even when Portis went down, there was always Ladell Betts and Mike Sellers.
Which meant T.J. Duckett just didn't fit.
In a year in which the Redskins' offseason moves are constantly drawing scrutiny, the trade for Duckett might be the most perplexing.
Why on earth did they get him if he wasn't going to play?
Sunday he got into a game for only the fourth time this season. He didn't start because the game plan was drawn up for someone else, but when he happened to get on the field he did what he has constantly done this season on the rare occasions he has carried the ball.
He gained yards. A significant amount of yards. This time 26 on five carries, which averages out to 5.2 yards every time he carried the ball.
Duckett has averaged 5.5 yards a carry this season. This is not a fluke. Three times in his five-year career he has averaged at least four yards a rush. But now he barely plays.
When Duckett arrived there were whispers he would not like the move, that he sees himself as a starting running back. He is a former first-round draft pick, and he was looking forward to a big year in Atlanta with free agency looming. Instead he has been graceful in his perplexing situation. Given opportunities to gripe, he has smiled. Afforded many occasions to sulk, he has instead cheered his teammates, offering backslaps and praise.
Then he sits.
But things are falling apart around the Redskins, and fast. It began with the benching of quarterback Mark Brunell and the subsequent placement of Portis on injured reserve. Betts started Sunday's game but did nothing with the opportunity, rushing for 18 yards and losing a fumble in the fourth quarter that set up a Buccaneers touchdown.
Betts later said the ball had been jarred from his arms by the helmet of Tampa Bay's Jermaine Phillips.
"I was just trying to make a play and his helmet hit the ball," Betts said.
Maybe at another time Betts's day would have been brushed off as a rough afternoon against an aggressive defense. But this is the year the Super Bowl dreams blew up on the Redskins and somehow this team's inability to run the ball Sunday did something to the normally genteel, eternally sunny Joe Gibbs, who delivered what amounted to a crisis of confidence speech after the game.
"I think we have certain principles that we know that we win by and when we abide by those we're going to win football games," he said.
Then he added: "Right now we're not getting that done. We have certain principles. We have to run, we have to stop the run."
Gibbs should make the change to Duckett this week. He has no choice. He spent an important pick in next year's draft on a player who has faithfully stood on his sideline for much of the season, thriving in the few opportunities he has had to actually run free. If it was stupid to trade for him and then sit him for half the season, it's even dumber to not use him now.
Late Sunday afternoon, as his teammates filed out of the Raymond James Stadium locker room, Duckett gave a gentle smile and said all the right things just as he has for what must be the most frustrating season of his career.
"If I'm sitting around crying that's not going to turn a two-yard run into an eight-yard run," he said.
But in a few weeks he will be a free agent and a running back at that. And running backs have such short careers with the beatings they take and he had value as a niche back who could pound the ball into the end zone. How much of that value has been ruined in a season in which he has only carried the ball 12 times?
Duckett shook his head. He cannot worry about that, he said.
"It's a no-win situation," he replied.
So he doesn't fight it. In the end this might make him more valuable. If a player in today's NFL can be dealt away in a trade he has no control over, go to that next team and never play yet smile and promise to be there for his teammates, he could well be worth a gold mine in free agency.
Of course, the Redskins, overspent and left with few tools with which to rebuild, will probably have to let him go this winter.
And he can thrive elsewhere as a symbol of yet another decision gone bad in this year of blunders.