Rock and a hard-earned place

By Mike Wise
Monday, November 23, 2009

ARLINGTON, TEX. On the day the new starting running back's knee gave out and another offensive lineman crumpled to the field, on the afternoon Coach Jim Zorn lost much more than a game, the shortest player on the Redskins' roster stood shirtless, taking the questions Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts used to take just as he took the handoffs they used to take.

"I'm just tryin' to stay standing," said Rock Cartwright, dabbing at a spot of blood across the bridge of his nose.

The small abrasion was covered with a butterfly bandage, a wound he said happened on his last carry of the game -- a poorly blocked third-and-two draw that lost two yards and led to Shaun Suisham's second missed field goal of the game. The miss gave the Cowboys good field position and the only chance they needed in the fourth quarter of a game the Redskins had just about won.

Two weeks ago, Rock was the backup's backup. Now, in this season of prolonged pain, interrupted only by three victories in 10 games, the little big man is all that's left in the backfield behind Jason Campbell.

Forced into the leading role Sunday after Betts injured his knee, Cartwright rushed for more yards (67) than he had in a game since 2005 and caught five more passes than he had in the past five years (seven). He bulled and squirmed for yardage in a bumping-helmets trench fight.

The truth is, the Redskins' backups are now going down like the starters did. Betts suffered what Zorn said was a torn medial collateral ligament in the first quarter against the Cowboys; right guard Chad Rinehart broke his right fibula in the third quarter. They followed Clinton Portis, Chris Samuels, Chris Cooley and Randy Thomas before them. Rinehart was also a backup's backup before last week, replacing an injured Mike Williams on an offensive line held together at this point by bailing wire and Joe Bugel.

Cartwright essentially becomes a window into a season gone awry, the eight-year veteran special teamer who once complained that he wanted more repetitions, more carries, in the preseason. By necessity, 10 days away from his 30th birthday, he gets his chance, at a time the season is very close to no longer mattering.

"Man, this is something I dreamed about," he said in the locker room after the game. "This is something I dream about, is 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. This is what you live for, for this opportunity."

Trouble is, the playoffs are all but out of reach. It's now six games and counting for Zorn and others on the Redskins who, beyond winning a few games for respectability, need to show they belong in Washington in 2010.

About the only laugh emanating from a crestfallen Redskins locker room, where a group of beat-up and beaten-down players milled about, was when Cartwright was asked what he thought when Betts went down.

"Tell Quinton to be ready at all times," Cartwright said as he and Quinton Ganther, the team's third-string running back coming into Sunday's game, chuckled.

This game might have hurt even more psychologically. There was belief in the Washington locker room that last week's win over the Broncos could serve as a springboard to something; and indeed, most everything that happened against the Cowboys in their cavernous spaceship of a stadium portended victory.

But conservative runs and Tony Romo rescuing the Cowboys late ruined what may have been the best performance of Campbell's career, laced with equal parts grit and grace. They ruined monster games from London Fletcher, Cornelius Griffin and LaRon Landry.

The Cowboys' comeback also killed the best day on offense a tree stump of a man had in five years, a day Cartwright picked up the slack for his injured teammates the way everyone has had to pick up for their injured teammates this season.

Yeah, if Brian Orakpo slings Romo to the turf in the final three minutes, there would have been no game-winning touchdown for Dallas. If Suisham doesn't miss from 39 yards before halftime -- and from 50 yards with 7 minutes 12 seconds remaining to all but ice it in a game in which 9-0 felt like 21-0 -- Romo becomes more desperate and discombobulated. If the Redskins take one or two shots downfield when everyone from Arlington, Va., to Arlington, Tex., saw runs coming, who knows?

Beyond six mostly rugged games remaining, the little big man is indeed all that's left -- 5 feet 8, 213 pounds of heart and might. The pride of Conroe, Tex., who last year angered Tank Johnson when he stood on the midfield star after Washington's final win at Texas Stadium, is one of the few remaining reasons to watch until the end.

As he stood in the locker room sounding the message of wild hope -- "You never know. I mean, 9-7 is still possible," he said. "This league is crazy, so you always feel alive." -- Cartwright's intricate body art covering his torso could be seen. It includes a small, cursive word tattooed between where his left shoulder ends and his biceps begins:


Dig deep enough, beyond the grass, topsoil -- really, beneath all the rubble of season-ending injuries, off-field chaos, on-field concussions, this crushing defeat in Dallas and now 3-7 -- and that's who's left.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company