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This ‘No. 2’ back is first-rate, for sure

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Over the years, some pretty fair country running backs have graced a Redskins uniform. John Riggins and Cliff Battles are in the Hall of Fame, of course, and some people think Larry Brown should be. Stephen Davis, Earnest Byner, Terry Allen, Clinton Portis -- it's quite an impressive group.

Well, now hear this: Ladell Betts has done something none of them ever did in Washington. In back-to-back weeks, he has rushed for 150 or more yards -- 155 against the Falcons and 171 yesterday against the Eagles.

Not bad for a "No. 2" back.

I put "No. 2" in quotes because it's getting harder to look at Betts as anybody's backup. Not only did he top 100 yards in all three games of the just-completed homestand, he also carried a heavier load each week (24 attempts, then 28, then 33) -- all the while acting as if he were barely breaking a sweat.

For Ladell, who fractured an arm in his first NFL start and has missed chunks of two seasons because of injuries, that was always one of the issues: Was he built for the brutality of the NFL? The results of the last three games suggest he is. Indeed, the results suggest he might be a late bloomer along the lines of Davis, a guy who, four or five years into his career, suddenly develops into a productive, workhorse back.

About the only thing Betts' efforts haven't produced the past two weeks is a victory. Atlanta beat the Snydermen 24-14, and Philadelphia held them off 21-19. And yes, if you really wanted to quibble, you could observe -- as offensive boss Al Saunders did -- that it would be nice to see him "make guys miss and turn those 10-, 15-yard runs into 35-, 40-yard runs." Still, Betts' 4.7 rushing average this season is better than Portis' average the past three years (4.1). And Clinton, I'll just point out, hasn't exactly been indestructible.

Perhaps you saw him standing on the sideline yesterday with his left arm in a sling -- watching his life pass before his eyes. Portis has never appeared less essential to the Redskins' cause than he has since Betts took over. In fact, should Ladell finish the season strongly, it would be reasonable to wonder if the Redskins, with so many other holes to fill, really need to keep both backs. Clinton, still just 25, would certainly have trade value.

Betts, meanwhile, might be one of league's biggest bargains at $11 million over five years -- the terms of the new contract he just signed. And let's face it, the team has had precious few of those lately. Fortunately for the Redskins, Ladell loves it in D.C., loves playing for Joe Gibbs and, frankly, doesn't want to stray too far from Mike Sellers, his 277-pound bulldozer of a blocking back.

Sellers and the rest of the blockers "made it easy for me" against the Eagles, Betts said. "We just have to convert some of those [four] field goals into touchdowns." One way to do this, probably the easiest way, is to start breaking those 35- and 40-yarders and putting the ball in the end zone himself.

"That," Saunders said, "will come eventually."

For the time being, the Redskins will have to settle for gains of 20, 19, 17, 14, 13, 12 and 11 -- Betts' longest runs yesterday. For the second straight week, his offensive line opened holes big enough to drive Santa's sleigh through, and Ladell took full advantage of it. As Randy Thomas put it, the coaching staff "put it on our shoulders up front to set the tempo. We're trying to show the way we need to do it around here -- tough and physical."

This is how it was in the good old days for Gibbs. Riggins would need a blow, so Joe Washington would rush for 147 yards. Byner and Gerald Riggs would be banged up, so Jamie Morris would go for 152. When you have an O-line that's performing at a high level, it almost doesn't matter who's carrying the ball. The Redskins' line is now functioning at that kind of level. And with the Saints and Rams, hardly two of the more stalwart run defenses, up next, Betts' string of 100-yard games should continue.

That's good news for young Jason Campbell, who's still a ways away from being the focal point of an offense. With Ladell doing most of the heavy lifting against Philly, Campbell was able to settle down after an interception-infested start and complete seven of 12 passes in the second half for 100 yards and a touchdown. If he can put together two halves like that, the Redskins might actually beat one of their final three opponents. If not, they'll have an unexpectedly high draft pick to console themselves with.

One thing they won't be shopping for in the draft, presumably, is a running back. Unless, that is, they put all their chips on Betts and peddle Portis for, say, a cover corner (e.g. Champ Bailey). But the chances of that happening are remote. Coach Joe wouldn't want to have to explain it to Sheriff Gonna Getcha, never mind Southeast Jerome.

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