- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

The Washington Redskins entered the 2003 season reasonably confident someone in their corps of intriguing-yet-unproven running backs would seize the opportunity and become the franchise’s next feature back.

After 15 games with no such emergence, the Redskins appear to have come to the conclusion their tailback of the future is going to have to come from somewhere else.

Washington likely will make running back a top priority this offseason, with club officials and coaches alike convinced they can’t enter 2004 with the current backfield intact. And given the relatively slim pickings expected to be available on the free agent and trade markets, the Redskins may have no choice but to spend a high draft pick on a tailback.

They were hoping it wouldn’t come to this, not when they entered the season with high hopes for a unit that included promising backs Trung Canidate and Ladell Betts. But as the season draws to a close, it has become clear neither Canidate nor Betts (nor teammates Chad Morton, Rock Cartwright nor Sultan McCullough) can be counted on to succeed next year.

All have been given a shot in some capacity, and all have come up short for a variety of reasons.

Canidate, who leads the club with 142 carries for 600 yards, has shown spurts of explosiveness. But Marshall Faulk’s former protege in St. Louis has been wildly inconsistent, has been indecisive when carrying the ball and has proven to be fragile. He missed two games in midseason with a sprained ankle and will end the season having sat out three straight games with a sprained foot.

Betts (77 rushes, 255 yards) has long been regarded by coaches as the club’s best long-term tailback prospect. But the second-year runner has been beset by injuries this season (a sprained elbow in training camp, followed by a fractured forearm during the season). Even when healthy, Betts has done little to get excited about, averaging a paltry 3 yards a carry since his 77-yard game in the season opener.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I envisioned, at some point along the way, getting a lot of playing time and getting a lot of carries, basically having a breakout year. It didn’t work out that way.”

The Redskins haven’t totally given up on Betts, but considering how little he’s done to date, they don’t feel they can go into next season counting on him to lead the way.

Of the other three, only Cartwright (95 carries, 368 yards) has enjoyed even moderate success. A converted fullback, he will make his third straight start at tailback tomorrow against the Eagles. But Cartwright, despite his work ethic and ability to break tackles, is seen as nothing more than a change-of-pace inside runner down the road.

Morton (46 carries, 197 yards) has proven to be best-suited to stick with kickoff and punt returns, with an occasional rush or reception out of the backfield. McCullough (one carry, 9 yards) has been a bust after making the 53-man roster out of training camp as an undrafted rookie.

That leaves Washington gearing up for an offseason shopping spree with a handful of interesting running backs likely to be available.

Cincinnati’s Corey Dillon is expected to be trade bait this spring after losing his starting job to Rudi Johnson. A six-time 1,000-yard rusher who has been limited to 491 this year because of injuries and a lack of playing time, Dillon, 29, has visions of a mid-career renaissance (a la Faulk).

San Francisco’s Kevan Barlow is already enjoying a breakout season of his own with 984 yards and six touchdowns while splitting the workload with Garrison Hearst. Barlow will be a restricted free agent (the Redskins showed no hesitation to sign such players last year), but the 49ers are likely to offer him the highest tendered contract, requiring a first-round pick as compensation.

Otherwise, the market figures to include veteran tailbacks on the downswing of their careers (Jerome Bettis and Curtis Martin are possible cuts) or less-appealing free agent choices like Duce Staley and Troy Hambrick.

Washington’s draft prospects appear to be better. Among the top tier of college running backs are Virginia Tech’s Kevin Jones, Oregon State’s Steven Jackson and Northern Illinois’ Michael Turner.

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