Redskins' Cartwright eager to seize his opportunity

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009

Washington Redskins coaches don't need to wait until game day to realize there's a stark difference between Clinton Portis, the team's injured star running back, and Rock Cartwright, their able-bodied replacement.

On Wednesday, as the team began installing its game plan for Sunday's game at Philadelphia, Cartwright hit the practice field as the Redskins' latest starting running back, nearly four inches shorter than Portis but still strong in other areas.

"Everybody on the team calls him 'Big Heart,' " center Casey Rabach said. "He may not be the most talented of running backs, but he's going to give the most effort of anybody you'll see."

Truth be told, taking reps with the starters Wednesday was a bit frustrating for Cartwright, who hasn't started a game since 2003. Usually, either Portis or Ladell Betts, who was placed on injured reserve Monday, practices with the Redskins' starters, and Cartwright, the team's kickoff return specialist since 2006, lines up as running back for the scout team, mimicking the plays and formations of the next opponent.

On Wednesday, Cartwright had just two reps with the scout team, which means practice ended in the afternoon and Cartwright didn't feel like he got enough work in.

"I had to go do some extra running after practice to make sure I'll be conditioned for Sunday," he said.

Yep, Cartwright is different than Portis. The latter, who is still feeling the effects of a concussion suffered Nov. 8 in Atlanta and will miss his third straight game this weekend, isn't known around Redskins Park as a particularly big fan of practicing. He has missed several this season because of nagging injuries, and in addition, he has believed for years that he plays better on game days when he rests his body during the week.

Cartwright teased Marcus Mason, who was signed Monday as the team's third running back, for stealing his scout-team reps.

"When I take scout-team reps, I'm always working on my craft, always trying to sharpen my craft," Cartwright said. "Any time I can do something that's going to help me, going to help the team, I'm going to do it."

Cartwright has long thought he's capable of starting in an NFL backfield, and he knows Sunday is his chance to prove it. When Betts went down Sunday in Dallas because of torn medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments, Cartwright stepped in with 140 yards of offense -- 67 yards rushing on 13 carries and 73 more receiving on seven catches.

"Rock plays with a lot of passion. He carries his heart on his sleeve," quarterback Jason Campbell said. "The way he feels, he's gonna let you know about it. He's that way with everyone. You've got to respect the guy's integrity, the way he comes out and plays. His opportunity presents itself, he's one of those guys who takes advantage of it."

Coach Jim Zorn said that though Cartwright will be the team's primary back Sunday, he expects the team to rotate Cartwright, Mason and Quinton Ganther. It's not exactly a fearsome group -- the three combined for 14 carries in 2008 -- but each is trying to prove he can play the position in the NFL.

In addition to getting reps with the starters, Cartwright is doing extra work to make sure he's ready Sunday.

"I'm going to go in, watch a little bit more of extra tape, see how those guys like to blitz, do those type of things," he said. "If I get an opportunity to be one-on-one with the safety, I got to know what they like to do so I can have that advantage."

Zorn says he expects all three of the team's available backs to also contribute on special teams and says they are similar runners. Ganther has 10 yards on six carries this year. And Mason, who began the season on the Redskins' 53-man roster, has 19 yards on six carries.

Mason watched Sunday's Redskins-Cowboys game from his home in the Washington area. When Betts went down, Mason's agent called and urged his client to keep his phone nearby. Sure enough, the Redskins called the next morning.

The team is familiar with Mason, a training camp and preseason favorite among fans, and he's familiar with their offense. Asked how it felt to be back at Redskins Park on Wednesday, Mason said, "Same as it felt the other four times I've been back.

"I feel like I never left," he said. "I came in and jumped right into practice."

But with Betts out for the year and Portis out for at least one more week, Mason knows he'll have a chance to contribute more than his previous stints with the team.

"I've got to make a name for myself. I've got to do something this weekend," Mason said. "This is it for me. I feel like I've had nine lives and I'm on my eighth one. It's running down."

Mason was actually ahead of Cartwright on the depth chart earlier this season. He had carries against St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Carolina, whereas Cartwright didn't have his first carry of the season until after Mason was released.

Since Washington parted ways with Mason on Oct. 20, the Potomac native says he has been doing light weightlifting and spent most days running at his alma mater, Georgetown Prep. Zorn said Mason will "definitely" play against the Eagles on Sunday.

"One of the things about Marcus, he's got real confidence in himself, much like Rock Cartwright," Zorn said. "He understands his situation. But he didn't just go huddle in the corner and wait until the phone rang. He's been working out, he's been trying to get ready so if he had an opportunity, he'd be ready. And that's what you love about a player like Marcus and other players like him who stay ready."

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