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Redskins stare into uncertain future in backfield
Portis's injury and Campbell's status raise questions going forward

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Washington Redskins began installing their game plan for the Oakland Raiders on Wednesday, preparing to start their fourth running back of the season, this time Quinton Ganther. If not relief, a new name and face gives the team at least a temporary sense of certainty for a position that has no obvious long-term solution.

The Redskins placed Clinton Portis on the injured-reserve list this week, and the star running back acknowledges the possibility that he might never again play in Washington. The Redskins, meanwhile, after years of neglecting the running back position in the draft, could be left in a bind of sorts if Portis isn't the team's backfield answer in 2010.

In recent years, no other team in the NFL has addressed its running back position in quite the same manner the Redskins have. Since the Redskins selected Ladell Betts in the second round of the 2002 draft, 148 running backs -- excluding fullbacks -- have been drafted into the league. Every team has selected at least two running backs in that period, and the average team has taken nearly five. Every single team has drafted at least one running back since 2007 -- except for the Redskins, who've drafted none since 2002.

Since acquiring Portis in 2004, the Redskins have entered every season with Portis as their primary back, Betts as a backup and Rock Cartwright, originally drafted as a fullback, as an emergency reserve.

With a roster in need of reshaping, the Redskins' front office will have to decide in the offseason whether it's time to draft a running back or start next season with an aging Portis again in the backfield.

With a 3-9 record heading into this weekend's game, the Redskins could be in position for a top-10 draft pick in next spring's draft. (If the season ended today, the Redskins would have the fifth pick.) Despite glaring needs on the offensive line and some internal concerns about the quarterback spot, it's not clear where the running back position will be on the team's list of offseason priorities.

Early signs suggest that young quarterbacks might have already stoked the team's curiosity. According to people within the Redskins organization, owner Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, the team's executive vice president of football operations, recently attended a University of Texas game to scout quarterback Colt McCoy. Cerrato traveled to conduct an in-person evaluation of Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, a junior who declared for the draft this week.

The belief among some at Redskins Park is that Snyder and Cerrato plan to use the team's first-round draft pick next spring to continue their quest for the Redskins' next franchise quarterback, which could signal the end of Jason Campbell's tenure with the team and also leave a big question mark in the backfield.

Cerrato did not respond to interview requests this week. Asked Wednesday about the future of the running back position in Washington, Coach Jim Zorn -- his own future a bit murky beyond this season -- couldn't commit to much.

"It can't be a community thing, like it is today," he said of a Redskins offense that started Cartwright the past two weeks, while mixing in Ganther and Marcus Mason. "All I can tell you is we're excited about what we're doing now. The future -- we're still in the middle of the season.

"All those evaluations will be major discussions as we go along as far as our needs and schemes and things like that that we want to accomplish during the offseason."

Campbell is a restricted free agent at the end of this season, which means the Redskins could match any offers he receives, but Portis is one of six players with guaranteed contracts for next year.

Even before suffering a concussion on Nov. 8 in Atlanta, his production this season was already well off pace of his previous seasons.

Portis finished the year with a career-low one touchdown in eight games. He had 494 rushing yards and just one game of 100 yards or more.

After missing the past four games because of the concussion, specialists told the team Portis was still several weeks away from a full recovery, so team officials opted to shut him down Tuesday.

While the team and Portis's agent have publicly said they expect the running back to return healthy next season, during his weekly radio appearance, Portis acknowledged how little certainty surrounds his future with the team.

"Do I think there's going to be change? I do. If I'm part of that change, will I be sad and devastated? I won't," Portis said Tuesday on "The John Thompson Show" on ESPN 980. "I think I'm appreciative of everything Mr. Snyder and the Washington Redskins done for me and the opportunities they gave me. . . . If I get to continue and I'm not in D.C. and I got to go to somebody else, I will give it my all there as well."

The Redskins will have to weigh the cost of releasing Portis -- he's guaranteed nearly $7 million next season -- against his potential impact out of the backfield, if he returns for another year.

Portis will be 29 at the start of next season, and there are concerns about his abilities going forward. Among the game's top running backs, 25 years old is considered a peak age, and production generally declines every year thereafter. By the time most running backs hit age 30, they're either out of the league or, in today's NFL, part of a running back rotation.

This season, for example, the average age of the top 25 running backs is 25.3 years. Only three in that group are older than Portis -- and only one in the top 10.

"People always say when a running back hits 30, it's time for their career to go down, their career's over. . . . I think that's for guys who take a pounding day in and day out, who's getting 20, 25, 30 carries a game," said Cartwright, 30, and primarily a kick return specialist during his career. "I think for those guys, that's when your career is kind of over when you're 30. Three hundred carries a season is a lot."

Portis has had 2,176 carries, including five seasons of 290 or more. If the team wants him back and Portis recovers fully from the concussion -- the second concussion he has suffered -- there is statistical incentive. Portis is 876 yards short of passing John Riggins as the franchise's all-time rushing leader and just 304 yards short of 10,000 yards, a level surpassed by only 24 players.

"Clinton is a guy that's about making sure he's all right," wide receiver Santana Moss said. "If he was able to go, he'd be out here ready to go. But I think when it comes down to his situation, health is more important than anything. He'll get his time to rest, and I'm sure if everything goes well, he'll be badder than ever next year."

While Portis will have to decide whether another NFL season is in his best interest -- "I think C.P. would be fine if he walked away. He's had a great career," Cartwright said. The Redskins, with their long list of draft needs, have their own interests to consider.

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