Unexpected faces now in the running for Redskins
Return specialist Cartwright to start against the Eagles

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 23, 2009

ARLINGTON, TEX. -- As the Washington Redskins try to shake off the 7-6 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, they now must prepare to use a third starting running back in as many weeks on Sunday in Philadelphia. It's hardly by design.

With injuries expected to sideline both Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts, Rock Cartwright, who's considered primarily a kickoff return specialist, is expected to start at running back against the Eagles.

"Man, this is something I dreamed about . . . just being able to go in and be the back, and be able to try to put the team on my back. I dream about this," Cartwright said. "This is what you live for, for this opportunity."

A running back's dream and a head coach's nightmare. While coaches praise Cartwright's work ethic and his contribution to special teams as vital, they didn't anticipate needing to reach this deep down the depth chart at such a crucial position.

Portis, who suffered a concussion on Nov. 8 at Atlanta, visited with specialists at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center on Friday. Coach Jim Zorn said after the Cowboys game that his star running back would miss a third straight game and will not be available against the Eagles. It was not immediately clear how much more time Portis might miss, but when Zorn was asked whether Portis is a candidate for the season-ending injured reserve list, he said, "Not at this moment."

Betts had 114 yards replacing Portis last week against Denver but didn't fare as well Sunday. He had only five yards on four carries when he went down with a knee injury in the first quarter. Zorn said after the game that Betts had suffered a torn medial collateral ligament, which could mark an early end to Betts's season. Betts was holding out hope that he had suffered only a sprain, and is expected to undergo an MRI exam on Monday morning.

"It just felt a little awkward the way I got tackled," Betts said. " I knew my knee got twisted up, but I didn't know to what extent and how bad, what injury might have happened. When they brought me to the sideline, they tested to see my stability, to see if the knee was moving around. They felt like it was moving around a little bit, so they shut me down, and iced me up."

Betts said he heard no pop in his knee and wasn't feeling any pain. "Just not much stability," he said.

As Betts had before him, Cartwright fared well when he was thrown in with the Washington starters. He finished Sunday's game with 67 yards rushing on 13 carries and 73 yards on seven receptions.

"It's not about me; it's about this team," said Cartwright. "If we would've won, it would've been different. You don't play the game for individual stats. You play to win. If I would've rushed for 200 yards, and we lost the game, it doesn't matter. We didn't win."

Cartwright has started just three games in his career -- the final three games of the 2003 season. Before Portis went down, Cartwright hadn't had more than five carries in a game since December 2005. And until Betts went down Sunday, Cartwright hadn't posted more than 10 carries since December 2003.

Cartwright's final stats against Dallas were his best since 2003. He acknowledged some mistakes in pass protection but with constant pressure on quarterback Jason Campbell, Cartwright was an especially valuable receiving target out of the backfield.

"He proved his toughness," Campbell said. "We always knew that about Rock. Everyone got a chance to see it today."

With other running backs ahead of him on the depth chart, Cartwright doesn't usually get as many opportunities to take reps in practice with the starters. But that will change this week. He said he doesn't anticipate feeling any more pressure heading into the Eagles game than he did last week.

"Pressure is when you don't know what you're doing," he said. "And I know how to run the football. I know how to play football."

"I prepare myself week in and week out as if I'm going to be the starter," Cartwright said. "When my number gets called, I have to be ready. My number got called today. I did some decent things, but there's always room for improvement, so I'm going to go in and watch the tape and see what I can get better at and see if I can improve next week."

There should be a couple of new faces around Cartwright at practice this week. Right guard Chad Rinehart suffered a broken fibula in the third quarter and will likely join fellow linemen Chris Samuels and Randy Thomas on the injured reserve list. The team also is still without injured tight end Chris Cooley, who is expected to visit a doctor on Monday.

"I've seen it happen where you lose a few players on offense or defense, but not like this, where it hits the whole offense," offensive coordinator Sherman Smith said. "It's tough."

With Portis out and Betts unlikely on Sunday, the Redskins will have to shuffle their roster. The team will now enter its next game with only Cartwright and Quinton Ganther as the backfield options. Rookie fullback Eddie Williams was carted off the practice field Friday with an ankle injury and was inactive Sunday. Ganther was signed as a free agent on Oct. 20. He has 10 yards on six carries in the past two games.

"You always need three. Most teams carry three and we need a third guy," Smith said. "I don't think [fullback] Mike Sellers is the guy we should put back there. He's not a tailback; he's a fullback. So who can you bring in here who can run in this offense?"

Smith said one likely candidate is Marcus Mason, who shined during preseason and started the regular season as a member of the 53-man roster. Mason was released following the Redskins' loss to Kansas City last month.

In six games as Redskin, Mason had 19 yards on six carries. He was inactive twice and didn't play a down against the Chiefs.

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