By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2006
Over the last five weeks, only one person in the NFL has rushed for more yards than Washington Redskins tailback Ladell Betts, and that individual is having one of the best seasons of any running back in league history. Betts, who matched a franchise record with his fifth straight 100-yard game Sunday in St. Louis, has amassed 678 rushing yards in that span; only San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson has more (712).
Betts has already ensured himself a more prominent role next season -- even should star tailback Clinton Portis return from injuries fully -- and he has an opportunity to set a franchise record Saturday against New York, one of few positives to come from this 5-10 season. Betts has posted at least 119 yards in each of the past four games, running at a pace besting even Portis's 2005 campaign; Portis averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season and Betts is averaging 4.7 this season (the highest by any starting Redskins runner since 1999).
Betts topped 1,000 yards for the first time in Sunday's overtime loss at St. Louis, but as important as that milestone was, and as enticing as getting a sixth straight 100-yard game would be, he is more concerned with a fumble that erased a chance for the Redskins to kick a game-winning field goal in regulation.
"I'm sure I'll probably sit back and think about it more at the end of the season, but with the loss I really haven't had much time to think about it," Betts said. "The guys up front are probably thinking about it, but I'm more focused on trying to get a win and if we do that the rest will probably take care of itself."
Last season Portis set a team record with 1,513 rushing yards, and he, too, finished with five straight 100-yard games. However, Portis totaled 573 yards over that span; considerably fewer than what Betts has put up over the last five games. Portis did get in the end zone more frequently during his tear -- six rushing touchdowns to three for Betts -- although the coaches have been giving short-yardage carries to reserve T.J. Duckett lately, whereas last season Portis was the first option around the goal line.
Associate head coach Al Saunders praised Betts's three-dimensional talent -- running, catching and blocking -- and hopes in time that the tailback will improve on making that decisive open-field move that makes a safety miss and turns 20-yard runs into 50-yard blasts. "He hasn't made the last guy miss as much as he'd like to," Saunders said. Betts knows that proving his durability over an entire season will be vital as well.
Running backs coach Earnest Byner said he could see that Betts had the ability to be an impact player during his first practices with him in 2004. Betts had to bide his time behind Portis, and suffered through a string of injuries himself, but looks every bit the part of a feature back now. "A lot of people have said they're surprised about what Ladell can do," Byner said. "But not me."
The Redskins rank fourth overall in rushing offense, averaging 139 yards per game, and ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing last year (136.4 per game). It has been one constant on a club in constant flux, and much credit is due to fullback Mike Sellers, the offensive line and the blocking of the tight ends and wide receivers. But the talent of the running backs, and their steady rise since Byner arrived, cannot be overlooked.
"He's been a huge inspiration for me," Betts said. "Having a coach that played the game -- especially at a high level -- you can't do anything but learn from a guy like that. And I think he's been one of my biggest supporters. He's a big part of the reason why I'm getting the opportunities I'm getting.
"Coach Byner has taught me a lot and he stuck with me the whole way. So I owe a lot of my success to him."
Coach Joe Gibbs said: "For the position coaches, yes, wins and losses are super-important, but they also have their group. They take pride in the group. When the group plays well, it reflects well on what they do."
Byner, a former top running back with Cleveland, Washington and Baltimore, has taken the success of his players to heart.
"First and foremost, it's the people that you deal with, and then it's a process that we try to go through in the room," Byner said. "And some of the things that I ask them to take a look at they really have been great students for me. The stuff that I talk about resonates with them, and I think they know the fact that I've lived it and walked it and also can use the coaching aspect to try to take them to another level. That's what we talk about all the time."
Redskins Notes: The Redskins placed cornerback Shawn Springs (fractured scapula) on injured reserve, ending his season, and waived cornerback Mike Rumph. Also, they signed cornerback John Eubanks from the practice squad and free agent defensive back Leigh Torrence. Springs is expected to be out five to six weeks; Rumph has been inactive six of the last seven games. Eubanks spent the season on the practice squad after being signed as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Mississippi in May. Torrence, who is 6 feet, 183 pounds, is in his second NFL season out of Stanford. Originally signed as an undrafted free agent in 2005 by Green Bay, he was waived by the Packers and signed with Atlanta before the start of the regular season. He played in 10 games in 2005 with the Falcons, on special teams and in the secondary. He was waived by the Falcons before the season. . . . Tackle Calvin Armstrong and wide receiver Ryan Hoag were signed to the practice squad.