Without Portis, Redskins stare into uncertain future in backfield

Quinton Ganther is expected to start at running back this week, the fourth player to earn that distinction for the Redskins this season.
Quinton Ganther is expected to start at running back this week, the fourth player to earn that distinction for the Redskins this season. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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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.

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