By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007
The ball had not come Ladell Betts's way since early in the third quarter Sunday in Green Bay, but with less than seven minutes left in the game, the Washington Redskins turned to him. On fourth and two from the Packers 33-yard line, with Washington trailing, 17-14, Betts ran a flat route along the line of scrimmage on the right flank, as instructed.
Green Bay linebacker Nick Barnett read the pass by Jason Campbell perfectly, rode Betts out of bounds and thwarted the Redskins' last threat of the afternoon. The scenario was familiar for Betts -- a spectator suddenly thrust to the fore -- and the outcome was unfulfilling, not unlike that of the Sept. 23 game against the New York Giants, when the offensive line wilted on his two carries from the 1 in the final minute of regulation and Betts failed to score the game-tying touchdown.
A year after emerging as a workhorse -- rushing for five straight 100-yard games with feature back Clinton Portis injured -- Betts again is the understudy, and Washington's running attack has turned tepid. The rotation of Betts and Portis has failed to spark either player lately -- both are slumping since combining for 157 yards on 34 carries in the season opener -- and the injured state of the offensive line has only compounded matters.
Betts, who finished with a team-high 1,154 rushing yards last season, is ever pragmatic. He accepted the compromise in playing time when he re-signed with the Redskins late in the 2006 season, with his market value soaring and teams eyeing him as a feature back in free agency, but realizes that his backup role runs counter to the reality of his career: The more frequently he carries the ball, the better he gets.
"I'm not even worried about the carries, actually," Betts said. "It is what it is. I knew what I signed up for when I came back. Yes, it is different from last year, but it isn't a problem, and I've been in this role before. It is harder to establish myself in a game now, for the type of player I am, but there's nothing I can do about it, and I try to make the best of every situation.
"I try to stay warm on the sidelines, because I never know when I'm going to go in, and when I do go in I have to make the best of the plays that I'm given. And if there's not much there, then there's nothing I can do about it."
Holes have been scarce for Betts, 28, and Portis, 26, with right tackle Jon Jansen out for the year, right guard Randy Thomas likely out until at least December and a makeshift line a possibility Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. Starting center Casey Rabach (groin), right tackle Todd Wade (groin) and left guard Pete Kendall (sore knees and hamstrings) did not practice yesterday, and, although all say they will play Sunday, there is no way to know how well they will hold up.
Coach Joe Gibbs envisioned a two-headed hammer for his running game, with Portis having to overcome shoulder, hand and knee injuries this offseason and Betts, a 2002 draft pick, emerging in his absence. But despite Gibbs dubbing them "interchangeable," Portis, whose last 100-yard game was Oct. 1, 2006, has rushed 69 times in the last four games, with Betts carrying 24 times, and never more than eight times in any game since Week 1.
When the Redskins have turned to Betts in key situations, often after not giving him the ball for a quarter or more, the results have not been what the team needed. Gibbs believes the overall running woes stem from insufficient carries on the whole for either running back, but said he is "comfortable" with the split between Portis and Betts and was not debating whether to alter it.
"I would say at some point there [Betts is] probably going to jump out and have a career day," Gibbs said. "But right now, we're trying to fit those two guys in and trying to get the most and keep them fresh. And I know Clinton in this one [against Green Bay], he was roaring, he was going hard. But it makes it tough for you, because you'd like to see Ladell get more work than he's getting."
Since rushing for 191 yards against the Dolphins, the Redskins are averaging just 3.4 yards per carry, about a yard and a half short of the coaching staff's goal and well below the NFL average (4.1). Portis is averaging 3.8 yards per carry in that span, while Betts is languishing with 24 carries for 55 yards (2.3 per carry). Betts emerged as a valuable pass catcher in 2006 -- as evidenced by the call for him on fourth and two against Green Bay -- but he is not the prototypical third-down back in the mold of former NFL standouts Ronnie Harmon or Joe Washington, who were elusive change-of-pace backs, more slippery and unpredictable with the ball in their hands. Betts, while athletic, is more of a grinder, making a single cut then bursting straight ahead.
Last year, Betts carried 20 times or more in each of the final six games, averaging 4.9 yards per carry, and during that stretch only San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson gained more yards. On three occasions, Betts rushed 28 times or more, and he responded with 5.1 yards per carry in those games. In 2006, Betts averaged 4.6 yards per carry on his first 10 carries, but on carries 11 through 20 he averaged 5.1.
The length of time between his rushes, though, might undermine any tailback.
He has carried on consecutive plays only three times in the last four weeks and rarely has been on the field for an entire series. Against the Giants, he went 30 minutes of game time between rushes (from 46 seconds left in the second quarter until 47 seconds remained in the game). Against the Detroit Lions in Week 5, he went about 29 minutes between carries (from late in the first half until about five minutes remained in the contest), and in Green Bay, Betts had just one rushing attempt in the final 37 minutes of the game.
"He's a total professional," said Redskins running backs coach Earnest Byner, who has long believed that Betts could be a starter. "I haven't got a smidgen of dissatisfaction from him. You can't have a better guy in this position. Does that say he's not burning inside to play? Oh, hell no. This guy wants to play, and if and when that opportunity comes he'll be ready."
The careers of running backs are brief, and by staying in Washington for less money than what likely awaited on the open market, Betts chose stability (a five-year extension with a $3.5 million signing bonus and a $2 million roster bonus in 2008) over the uncertain. Sharing time with Portis -- even at such a reduced ratio -- might add years to his career, and perhaps the chance to start here again awaits.
"Sometimes it really isn't about getting the most money and having an opportunity to play right away," said tailback Rock Cartwright, one of Betts's closest friends on the team. "It's about you being happy and being in a place where he's happy. It has its positives and negatives, and he hasn't gotten a lot of opportunities this year, but I know once they come he'll take advantage of it."