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Opportunity knocks

By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Well, it figures. The Redskins seem to have gotten it together, finally, with Sunday's 27-17 win, overcoming injuries and strife and all that TV movie stuff. What they haven't had is a good position controversy.

Here it comes.

With Clinton Portis cheering from the sideline, backup Ladell Betts has, in the past game and a half, revved up the Redskins' offense, which in turn has revved up the entire team, the coaches and the fans.

So what happens when Portis, out because of a concussion suffered in last week's loss to Atlanta, is healthy again?

Nothing. The NFL isn't like baseball. Guys are seldom Wally Pipped in the NFL. In other words, they don't lose their starting jobs over a headache.

"I don't want a guy to have to lose his job because he got a concussion," Coach Jim Zorn said Monday at Redskins Park, formerly known as the Unhappiest Place on Earth. "He's our running back and who knows what kind of game he might have had. We can speculate on both sides of that. I don't want to take anything away from what Rock [Cartwright] and what Ladell did either. Our offensive line did a great job of creating lanes. I think we're all excited about that."

That said, Zorn and the Redskins can't deny that their offense, in the past six quarters, has looked immeasurably better. Betts had 114 yards on 26 carries, a 4.4-yard average, with a touchdown in Sunday's victory. Most of that running is what he later called "downhill," barging straight ahead through whatever sliver of daylight the offensive line provided. Is that enough to turn around an entire season? Albert Haynesworth said yes. And who's going to argue with Albert Haynesworth?

"It can be one win; it can be one play," he said. "We could point back and look at Ladell Betts running the ball as hard as he did and moving the offensive line against a ranked defense. That was key to us and that could turn us around a whole lot."

Of course, it's not just Betts's individual numbers; it's also this: 22 first downs, tying the Redskins' best total this season. Nine came on running plays, most for the Redskins this season. Net yards rushing: 174. Rushing plays: 40. Both are season highs. Their 27 points were the most they've put up this season -- easily. And so on.

And it's not just the rushing numbers, either. Those numbers created these numbers: 214 and 10. That's passing yards and receivers with catches. Jason Campbell ran the gamut from A. Randle El to T. Yoder, using all his weapons and most of the alphabet. He completed 17 of 26 passes, was sacked three times and had no interceptions.

Betts didn't do all that single-handedly. But everyone knows a running game boosts the passing game. That's NFL 101.

"It means a lot," tight end Fred Davis said of Betts's effort. "Who doesn't like running the ball like that? It helps the passing game, it helps a lot of things when you got the running game going like last week in the second half. Start the running game going, some passes there, a few runs here. Ladell, he. . . stepped in when we needed it."

What we heard in the locker room after the game was this: We weren't surprised by Betts. We see him do it in practice all the time.

Hello?

Maybe there's a subtle message in there, maybe not. Nobody questions Portis's will to win. But a lot of people question his will to practice. He has been able to dictate his own work schedule, in part because of minor injuries that the team wants to keep from becoming more serious and in part, I think, because he doesn't like to practice and the team doesn't like to upset Portis.

This is de rigeur for star running backs in the NFL. But does Portis still fall into that category? No one who saw the Redkins' first 30 quarters of the season can deny that they looked much, much better in the past six.

Betts was not running behind the A-team. The Redskins opened holes for him with this front five, starting from left tackle: Levi Jones, Derrick Dockery, Casey Rabach, Chad Rinehart and Stephon Heyer. That's the Redskins' fifth starting line combination in nine games. If Jones is the answer on the left side, that fills a gap and puts Heyer back at right tackle, where he's more effective. Will we see that lineup against Dallas? Zorn: "Uh. Yes."

"The holes looked good last week and they looked good today," Betts said. "Those guys are doing a great job, and I hope they continue to do so. We're going to need that. I think that's going to be our form for winning down the road."

Maybe, finally, they've found a quintet that works. Keep them healthy -- ice 'em up, don the surgical masks, distribute the hand sanitizer, keep them away from stairs, don't let them cross the street alone -- and maybe, just maybe, the offensive line woes can be set aside for a week or two.

"I think it's just wanting it so bad and everybody finishing," Davis said of the line's improved play. "This week I felt like we just finished harder. Everybody wants to win; we're tired of moping around there at Redskins Park just looking sad."

Maybe, too, the improvement has something to do with the fraternity of backups, of second-stringers, of guys who don't get the reps at practice and usually run off the field with clean uniforms. A lot of those guys are playing now. None of them wants a Chris Cooley or a Chris Samuels to go down, but it's only natural to pull for the guys who are in the same position you are.

"The NFL is about opportunities," Davis said. "When you're here, you gotta make something happen. If you don't, you'll just be another regular guy. Ladell, Marko [Mitchell], me, Rinehart -- today we did some things we needed to do as young guys to come through and help our team and we did 'em today."

If -- it looks like such a tiny word, if, but in this case it's so large it practically needs a paragraph of its own -- they can continue to play as they have since halftime in Atlanta, they can steal another game or two this season. I said at 2-5 that they couldn't win another game; I was wrong. When I'm wrong, I say I'm wrong, like Baby's daddy in "Dirty Dancing."

And in the spirit of that movie, I offer one final thought: Nobody puts Ladell in a corner.

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