The Washington Redskins have five games to figure out who’s who at tailback.
Is Trung Canidate the player who plowed into holes that weren’t there and failed to shed first tacklers? Or is he the back who bowled over Miami middle linebacker Zach Thomas on Sunday and averaged more than 5 yards a carry in the second half?
What about Ladell Betts? Is he the guy who generated less than 2.3 yards a rush in consecutive losses to Philadelphia, Buffalo and Dallas? Or the one who dominated the opening win over the Jets?
Unlike the defensive line, an unquestioned priority for the Redskins this offseason, the position of running back could evolve several ways as Washington plays out the string in 2003 and looks ahead to 2004.
If Canidate or Betts emerge, the club might not stress running back in the draft and free agency. If not, Washington might spend a high pick in the draft on a back or use the pick as trade bait for someone like Cincinnati’s Corey Dillon or as compensation for San Francisco restricted free agent Kevan Barlow. Or the Redskins could grab someone from a currently shallow pool of scheduled unrestricted free agents.
In any case, Washington’s final five games will be, as much as anything, an audition for its running backs.
“We’re going to do everything we can to win the games, but someone still does need to step forward, take over the position and go with it,” offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said yesterday.
Being scrutinized are Canidate and Betts and to a lesser extent rookie Sultan McCullough and fullback Rock Cartwright. McCullough still is nursing a hand injury and can’t jump to a commanding position for 2004, while Cartwright has been Washington’s most effective runner at times but is too awkwardly sized (5-foot-7, 223 pounds) to be a feature back.
Even Cartwright, who is expected to return this week after missing the Dolphins game with a sprained ankle, acknowledged he has little or no shot at the long-term role.
“I probably won’t get a look, but I won’t be disappointed if that’s the way it goes,” Cartwright said.
Canidate, meanwhile, probably has been too ineffective to be relied on next year, though he did flash some potential in Sunday’s loss. After struggling badly the two previous games, Canidate showed his sprained ankle might have been a factor in those efforts by running hard at Miami.
“The offensive line was giving me something to work with a little bit more,” Canidate said. “The better they do, the better I do. They were solid.”
Adding speed on offense was the thinking behind Washington’s trade for Canidate. But Canidate’s longest run is 23 yards, and he rarely has broken tackles to take advantage of his speed. Also, he has been a liability in blitz protection.
Betts is a better bet to secure Washington’s tailback position. The former second-round pick has more prototypical size (222 pounds) than Canidate (205 pounds), and when he runs well he looks like former Redskin Stephen Davis.