- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 28, 2002

Washington Redskins running backs Kenny Watson and Ladell Betts have shown promise this season. They appear to be a good fit for coach Steve Spurrier's offense. But is that enough for a winning ground game in 2003?

The two young backs are expected to be the Redskins' featured rushers next season. Veteran Stephen Davis, a two-time Pro Bowl player, is due to be cut in coming weeks for salary cap reasons, and by early spring he should know where he will be playing next year.

So far, Watson and Betts have made solid arguments to replace him. Each rushed for more than 100 yards last weekend in a win over Houston becoming the first Redskins pair to do so in 17 years and for the season they have made a variety of big plays as substitutes for Davis.

But the challenge would grow next year. Not only would they log a season's worth of playing time as regular players, but they would have to contend with NFL defenses game-planning for them each week.

League personnel people interviewed in recent days were divided in their opinions of Watson and Betts. Some feel the running backs have good potential and might be especially successful in Spurrier's pass-heavy offense, while others believe neither has the skills to be a quality NFL starter.

Redskins coaches, for their part, like what Watson and Betts have shown but aren't getting overly excited.

"We're going to take it one game at a time," said running backs coach Hue Jackson, the newly promoted offensive coordinator. "They both have demonstrated the ability to play at this level. Now can they be the featured guy every single down? Who can say? But I think both of them are chomping at the bit to have that happen."

Watson, 24, came to Washington in 2001 as an undrafted free agent out of Penn State. He didn't even play much running back in college, focusing on wide receiver and special teams. He laughed this week as he admitted that his two 100-yard rushing games this season are his first since high school in Harrisburg, Pa. However, he believes he can be a featured running back in the NFL.

"I think so," Watson said. "Not too many people thought I could make it this far. I've made pretty big strides since last year. I just have to continue to grow."

Watson wasn't brought in to be a primary running back, but Betts, 23, was. A second-round pick out of Iowa last spring, Betts boasts a slightly bigger body (5-foot-10, 221 pounds to Watson's 5-11, 214) and is regarded as having greater potential. Although he has played behind Watson all season, he also feels he can be a primary back.

"I definitely believe I can," Betts said. "That's what I go outside in practice and work and strive every day to show the coaches."

The Redskins could opt not to have a true No.1 back in 2003, instead splitting the snaps between Watson and Betts as they have at times this season. Pairing a sturdy primary rusher with a quick third-down back is common in the NFL, but Spurrier has proved unconventional in many ways and yesterday said he wasn't committed to leaning on one guy.

"In our offense, we'd like the first-down back to be a third-down back as you'd call it in the NFL," Spurrier said. "He needs to be able to run and catch on first down, not just run two and throw on third. Hopefully, we're not going to be that kind of team."

Spurrier's pass-oriented Fun'n'Gun helps Watson and Betts. Obviously, neither is built like Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis, but one scout mentioned St. Louis' Marshall Faulk and Kansas City's Priest Holmes (obviously at a much higher level) when discussing Washington's pair.

And around the league, more backs seem to be thriving in the quick mold. In Oakland, Charlie Garner has 91 catches, a 10.3-yard receiving average and a 5.4-yard rushing average. The New York Giants' Tiki Barber and Philadelphia's Duce Staley also have a lot of receptions with high averages receiving and rushing, which Watson (31 catches, 8.0 yards, 4.8 yards) and Betts (12, 12.8, 4.4) possess on a limited scale.

Quickness and pass-catching ability are key reasons Watson and Betts fit the Fun'n'Gun. Both accelerate quickly a must considering the draw plays that Spurrier often calls and both can create mismatches out of the backfield.

But some see Watson as a back based in quickness without having true quickness, like a slower Barber or Staley. And some don't think Betts has the play-making ability that a featured rusher needs. Also Betts was seen by one talent evaluator as less of a "gamer."

That said, many people around the league don't think Spurrier wants to have a Pro Bowl rusher like Davis. Ultimately, some feel, having that kind of player creates unnecessary pressure to run when the pass starts to struggle as it did this season. However, others question the notion that Spurrier can succeed on offense without a great back.

How Watson and Betts fare against better defenses is a issue to be monitored. Watson's 100-yard games came against Seattle, which has the NFL's worst rushing defense, and Houston, an expansion team. Betts' big day was against Houston. However, some personnel people also note that the Redskins' offensive line has been in flux, hampering the efforts of their rushers.

And Watson and Betts must show they can thrive while being the target of NFL defenses. It's one thing to succeed as a change of pace for Davis, quite another to be "pinned up over the defensive player's bedroom wall," as Jackson put it.

"When you're the featured back, those defenders when they go home, they're dreaming about you every single night," Jackson said.

Being a featured back also means wearing down defenses and then exploiting them in the fourth quarter. Watson's season-high is 23 carries, Betts' is 20. Davis averaged nearly 22 carries from 1999 to 2001, often going into the high 20s or low 30s.

Betts offers some of that element without being a true power back. Coaches have been working with him recent weeks to run with more power, trying to maximize his fluid, straight-ahead style.

"What he's really focusing on now is using those 220 pounds to his advantage, where's he's beginning to be a little bit more of a thumper," Jackson said.

Watson is more of a "darter" but has gotten the tough yards at times.

"Sometimes you've got to be like that," Watson said. "If it's third-and-1, third-and-2, those are the places you've got go in there and make whatever you need to make."

Betts received less playing time early on than Watson because coaches were uncomfortable with his game knowledge, especially with regard to blocking schemes. He didn't carry more than five times in a game until Dec.15 against Philadelphia. The inactivity frustrated him, but now he sees it as "a blessing in disguise."

"I'm not quite sure why they held me back so long, but all the things I went through at the beginning of the season prepared me for now," Betts said. "Now I've gotten better each week and I'm more prepared."

Tomorrow will provide another glimpse of how much better Betts and Watson are getting and, more importantly, whether they can replace one of the best running backs in Redskins history.

"Those are big shoes to fill," Watson said. "Stephen is a Pro Bowl running back. That's something we've got to prepare for in the offseason."

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