For the Redskins, Betts Is A No. 1 Back in Disguise

"We'll find ways that accentuate the dynamic things that Ladell can do," Al Saunders said of Ladell Betts, pictured. (Preston Keres - The Washington Post)
By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 18, 2007

When Jason Campbell threw his final pass of the season, he immediately looked forward to the moments he is enjoying today as the unquestioned starter eager to build on his individual successes of last season while focusing on the areas of his game that needed the most improvement.

For Ladell Betts, the running back who also enjoyed a breakout season that proved he could be the top running back, minicamp isn't about creating a mandate but finding comfort in coming off the best year of his career knowing it will not produce an accompanying promotion this season.

Betts, 27, took over for Clinton Portis, first periodically at the beginning of last season while Portis recovered from a separated shoulder and then permanently after Portis broke his hand in a 27-3 loss Nov. 12 in Philadelphia.

As the official starter, Betts's beginning was mediocre, rushing for 18 yards on seven carries the next week at Tampa Bay. Then he ripped off the kind of streak that can change a career, rushing for 100 yards in five consecutive games, including a 33-carry, 171-yard performance in a home loss Dec. 10 to Philadelphia.

When he was finished, Betts had started nine games but rushed for 1,154 yards. He was playing in the final year of his contract, and most likely could have cashed in on the free agent market.

But Betts stayed in Washington, signing a five-year extension during the season. He remained knowing that Portis would be back in 2007 and he would likely return to being a backup. At times during the offseason, Coach Joe Gibbs intimated that there was a chance that he would leave the starting running back job to more open competition, but despite his big year, Betts will play behind Portis.

"Clinton is the starter," associate head coach-offense Al Saunders said. "Ladell had a terrific year. The way he played last year showed what a gifted and talented player he is in the NFL."

And thus, with the Redskins' three-day minicamp over, the hierarchy is clear: Portis is back, and he is the starter. Betts is the second running back, followed by the reserve group of Rock Cartwright, Derrick Blaylock and Mike Sellers.

"I like the group of guys we have in the locker room. I like the coaching staff. I didn't feel like relocating," Betts said. "There are a lot of things that go into starting over with another team. I just felt comfortable here. To me, being comfortable is more important than the money. That's just me, though. Everybody's different."

Betts has always played down his success and role on the team, and said he had no expectations after last season. He said he understood well his chance to go with testing the open market, but wanted to remain in Washington.

"Clinton is the starter, but I still feel like I can be an impact player here," he said. "I still prepare as if I'm the number one, and when you work hard and focus on your preparation, there are going to be opportunities for you to make an impact on this team."

Saunders said there was nothing specific that he asked Betts to concentrate on during the offseason, but Betts has his own goals. He says he clearly wants to be better with the ball. As his workload increased last season, Betts committed costly mistakes, fumbling in his final three games and five of the final eight. Two of those fumbles -- against Tampa Bay and at St. Louis -- were critical and contributed directly to the Redskins losing those games.

"That goes with the territory as a running back," Betts said. "The more you play, the more you carry the ball, and running backs have the ball in their hands more than anybody except the quarterback. You just have to concentrate. Ball security is very important to me."

Saunders has always been a big fan of Betts, going back to when Betts played high school football in Missouri. When he arrived to oversee the Redskins' offensive line in February 2006, Saunders said Betts was one of the first players he grew excited about.

Saunders said he wanted to continue finding ways to get the ball to Betts in the open field, and saw different scenarios where Betts and Portis could be in the backfield at the same time. But just because Portis will reclaim his spot as the starting tailback doesn't mean that Saunders doesn't believe Betts will be an impact player.

"It's been mandated that Clinton is the starter, yes, but certainly we'll find ways that accentuate the dynamic things that Ladell can do," Saunders said. "He just the kind of player you can put into an offense that will flourish. The offense is governed by what players can do. And being part of the passing game is one Ladell's strengths."

Betts agreed.

"The open field is a big area for me. There were a lot of times last season when I got past that first wave of defenders and found myself with one or two guys to beat," he said. "So if I could make that one extra move, make that one last guy miss, there will be a lot more chances for me to break free and hopefully take a few more long runs to the house."

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