By Rick Maese
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
A day after his team snapped its four-game losing streak, Redskins Coach Jim Zorn tiptoed across the running back tightrope Monday. With one player who struggled at times during the team's slump and another who helped bust the team out of it, Zorn was careful not to offend either.
Zorn did make clear, however, that despite Ladell Betts's impressive performance the past two Sundays, when Clinton Portis is healthy again, he'll remain the team's starting running back.
"I don't want this to be something where Ladell came in and did a wonderful job -- good grief, he really did a tremendous job -- and yet have Clinton lose his job because Ladell came in in support," Zorn said. "I think it's just exciting to know we've got two running backs who can run the ball."
Portis suffered a concussion in the first half against Atlanta on Nov. 8 and missed Sunday's 27-17 win over Denver. Zorn said on Monday he still isn't certain whether Portis will be ready to return for this Sunday's game at Dallas.
"I'm not going to try to push him through it and say: 'You've got to go now. Ladell had a great game. You'd better watch out.' That's not the issue," Zorn said. "The issue is his health. That's the main thing. That's the only thing."
As experts and NFL officials comb through reports and studies, teams across the league have been more proactive and cautious when it comes to dealing with concussions this season.
Philadelphia running back Brian Westbrook suffered a concussion against the Redskins on Oct. 26. The Eagles shut him down for two weeks, but on Sunday in San Diego, in his first start back, Westbrook suffered a second concussion in four weeks.
The Redskins are determined not to put Portis in a situation in which he risks further injury. Portis has suffered two concussions as a football player; the first was during his final season at the University of Miami.
In the days leading up to the Broncos' game, Portis missed practices and Zorn said his star running back was suffering from headaches and ringing in his ears.
"I think the headaches are now gone," Zorn said on Monday. "I think the ringing's gone. There's still a little blurriness. It's really when you move your head real quick, there's a little blurriness. Something's still there, and day by day, I think he's getting better and better."
If he can't, Betts showed coaches what he's capable of as a starter. Last season -- the first for Zorn and offensive coordinator Sherman Smith -- Betts had just 61 carries. Even as coaches decided in the offseason that Betts would be used more regularly this season -- especially on third downs -- his role was minimal until Portis was injured. Betts had only 11 carries in the team's first seven games.
But now, in the Redskins' past seven quarters, Betts has 177 yards on 39 carries and a team-best two rushing touchdowns. Rock Cartwright, who had a total of 12 carries in the past three seasons combined, has chipped in with 57 yards on 16 carries. Against the Broncos -- the league's third-ranked defense entering the game -- the Redskins totaled 174 rushing yards, their most since Nov. 23, 2008, in Seattle.
The team's ground game had been mostly ineffective with Portis in the backfield this season. Among running backs with at least 50 carries, 27 have a higher rushing average than Portis' 3.98 yards per carry. He's battled nagging injuries, has struggled to find and hit holes and hasn't displayed the explosiveness that made him one of the league's elite backs. Never in his career has Portis had only one rushing touchdown nine games into any season.
Still, Zorn remains committed.
"I don't want a guy to have to lose his job because he got a concussion. He's our running back, and who knows what kind of game he might've had" against Denver, Zorn said. "We can speculate on both sides of that. I don't want to take anything away from what Rock and what Ladell did either. They really helped us win."
When Portis is again healthy, Zorn said he doesn't "see any reason" his star running back can't perform similar to what Betts has shown the past two weeks -- even if Portis didn't necessarily show it in the previous seven.
Interestingly, in both the 2006 season and the current one, Portis managed just one 100-yard performance in the team's first eight games before getting injured. In taking Portis's starting spot, Betts responded with five straight 100-yard games in 2006. On Sunday against the Broncos, he posted his first 100-yard game since then.
Zorn wasn't certain when he'd make a final decision about Portis's status for Sunday's game at Dallas. But if Betts gets the majority of the practice plays this week, he'll likely start a second straight game.
"I don't think it would be prudent to say [Portis] is going to be ready on Sunday if he can't run hard and work through the practice week," Zorn said.
Following Sunday's game, Betts praised the efforts of the offensive line in front of him. It's a unit that had changed its starting personnel five times already this season, and in the days leading up to the Broncos' game, coaches shuffled three more starters. Zorn said he liked what he saw Sunday and plans to again go with a line that includes newcomer Levi Jones starting at left tackle, Stephon Heyer at right tackle and Chad Rinehart at right guard.