At the end of last season, in the afterglow of Ladell Betts's breakout performance, Coach Joe Gibbs let the running back in on a little secret. During Betts's exit interview last January, a few days after racking up 118 yards and a touchdown in the final game of the 2004 season, Gibbs revealed that when he returned to coach the Redskins he had pegged Betts, a second-round draft pick in 2002, as a third-down back -- and nothing more.
Gibbs then gleefully informed Betts that his assessment was utterly incorrect.
As this preseason has progressed, the issue is not whether Betts deserves to be on the field, but rather how to ensure the team best maximizes his talents. Betts was a pleasant revelation on what was a horrendous offense last season, and while two-time Pro Bowler Clinton Portis will surely remain the featured back, it is also fair to expect Betts to carry the ball significantly more than the 90 times he did last season.
"I took it as a compliment for coach to sit me down and tell me that," Betts said, "especially from a coach who has been around a lot of ballplayers and seen a lot of successful ballplayers and had a lot of winning teams. For a coach to say something like that means a lot."
Betts, selected 56th overall in the 2002 draft, received his lone start of the season in Week 17 against Minnesota because Portis was injured. His performance only punctuated what was a strong season. Betts, who turns 26 on Saturday, ran 26 times for 118 yards -- both career highs -- scored once and broke a 27-yard run, the team's longest since Portis took the season-opening carry 64 yards for a touchdown. Betts was adept at executing some of the power running plays Portis never quite took to -- counter trey and 40-Gap -- and melded his compact frame (5 feet 10, 222 pounds) with good acceleration.
It capped off a season in which Betts handled his reserve status with aplomb, contributed on special teams and averaged 4.1 yards per carry (the Redskins averaged only 3.7 yards). With Portis injured for Friday's preseason game against Cincinnati, Betts stepped up with 30 yards on six carries and was impressive again.
"I'll say this, he slammed that thing against Minnesota about as hard as I've seen anybody run," Gibbs said. "I told Ladell after the season that it was more than that [game]. I said: 'Look at the whole year, what you did. You didn't say squat, you played special teams, you ran back kicks, you showed when you got an opportunity you rushed for over  yards.' Ladell, I sure like him as a football player. I think there's a lot of stuff to him."
Because Portis has never rushed for fewer than 1,300 yards in a season and is in the second year of a massive contract, he is a linchpin in this organization. But at just 5-11 and 205 pounds, he readily admits he is not built to be a bruising back.
To require Portis to carry the ball 343 times again -- 53 more than his top single-season total with Denver -- might be to his and the team's detriment, and it was not surprising that 63 of Betts's 90 rushes last season came in the final six games, with the relentless pounding of the long season draining on Portis.
"One thing with Clinton I made a big point of is, never, ever do we want you in there tired and winded," Gibbs said, "and I think that's important for your starting back, whoever it would be. You need to realize, hey, if you're huffing and puffing and you're tired or you're nicked a little bit, somebody else can do a better job, and that's when you normally get into trouble and turn balls over or whatever. So I told Clinton, you know, whether he carries it 30 times or carries it 20, the big thing is for him to be healthy and roaring, and if not we'll put Ladell in there And I think [Portis] feels like Ladell is pretty good, too. I think he's got a pretty good opinion of Ladell."
In many ways, Betts is the antithesis of Portis, from his running style to his reserved nature. Portis oozes charm and showmanship, and his candor sometimes results in controversial statements. Betts does all of his talking on the field. "I can't get him to talk," Gibbs said. "He's all business. He gets after it and works."
Over time, however, Betts would like to attain a similar stature within the game. He believes he has the talent to be a starting back, and, after watching former understudies such as Priest Holmes and LaMont Jordan become well-paid starters after switching teams, he knows that performance begets opportunity, whether it be here or someplace else.
"I just keep preparing myself like I'm the number one guy," Betts said, "because being number two, you're only one play away. If Clinton were to ever go down -- which I hope he doesn't for his sake -- it would be my own fault if I didn't prepare myself to be ready. So I look at myself as the number one guy, and I have to be ready if that situation does come.
"You definitely see what goes on around the league. That's why I keep preparing myself. But right now I'm a Redskin, and I enjoy being a Redskin, and hopefully I'll continue to be a Redskin for my whole career. I just keep preparing myself in case I do have to be the number one guy."