After playing behind Stephen Davis, Trung Canidate and Clinton Portis for the better part of five years, Washington Redskins running back Ladell Betts finally has an extended chance to take the ball and run with it with Portis out for the season with hand and shoulder injuries.
Fortunately for Betts, his first chance to start at least two straight games comes as he’s about to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time.
“It’s definitely a great opportunity, so I’m going to try to take full advantage of it,” said Betts, who has started just four times in 57 games. “Most running backs tend to be rhythm carriers. The more carries you get, the better you get. Hopefully that will be the situation for me. When you get a chance to get in a rhythm and get numerous carries back-to-back it does make it easier. The more times you do it, the better feel you get for what the defense is doing and your blockers as well.”
Betts ran 19 times for 79 yards after Portis was hurt in the first quarter of last Sunday’s 27-3 loss at Philadelphia. Since the Redskins average 28.8 carries a game, the 5-foot-10, 223-pound Betts should prepare for his heaviest workload since his senior season at Iowa in 2001. Third-stringer T.J. Duckett had only five carries behind Betts when Portis was inactive in Week 2 at Dallas and only two against the Eagles.
“I really like the way Ladell plays,” center Casey Rabach said. “He runs hard. He’s not afraid to lower his head and try and run somebody over. We obviously don’t want to see Clinton injured, but I’m kind of excited to see what these guys are going to do. Clinton’s got tremendous speed so he’s quick to bounce it to the outside. Ladell is more of a power back. And that’s T.J.’s game. I love those kind of backs. I think all offensive linemen do.”
Running backs coach Earnest Byner believes that Betts, whom the Redskins drafted 56th overall in 2002, will rise to the occasion.
“Ladell has played very well this year,” Byner said. “What you saw on Sunday is what he does on the practice field every day. He works hard. He works fast. He makes people miss. He breaks tackles. In any situation, when you become ‘the guy,’ it’s a different mentality, a different level of preparation. It takes a totally different energy to prepare to pound 20, 25, 30 times a game. When you feel that particular energy, it propels you to take advantage of the situation.”
Like Betts, Duckett said he didn’t want to get more playing time because of an injury, but he’ll take it.
“I’m excited to get the opportunity to run a little bit and contribute to this team,” said Duckett, who scored 31 touchdowns on 552 carries for Atlanta the past four seasons before being acquired by Washington on Aug. 22.
Betts and Duckett are both in the final years of their contracts, but Betts said he’s not thinking at all about the impending opportunity to judge his worth in the NFL. However, there figures to be a decent market for a 27-year-old power-oriented back with the speed to return a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown as he did last November at Tampa Bay and with good enough hands to rank just one catch (with 30) behind standout receiver Santana Moss for the team lead. In fact, Betts averages 4.5 yards a carry, 0.4 yards better than Portis, who has surpassed the 1,300-yard mark four times in his career.
“Ladell’s pretty focused this year for some reason,” right guard Randy Thomas said in a wry reference to Betts’ possible big payday this offseason.
“That will take care of itself,” Betts said. “My job is to step up and pick up the slack from where Clinton left off and hopefully keep this running game going. I’ve gotten more professional about what I do as far handling my business off the field, preparing myself, taking full advantage of my practice reps. Hopefully that translates into the game as well.
“I get plenty of reps in practice so I’m always prepared in case I have to take over the load. I try to never have myself in a situation where I say, ‘What if I was prepared?’ I’m always prepared.”
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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