- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

Steve Spurrier would like nothing more than to figure out who is his running back of the future. Unfortunately, before the Washington Redskins coach can figure that one out, he’s got to figure out who is his running back of the week.

“I have no idea,” Spurrier said yesterday when asked who would start at tailback Sunday night at Miami. “We’ll see if Rock [Cartwright] can come around [after spraining his ankle]. And John Simon is a young man who’s been with us a couple of weeks now. Maybe it’s time he gets an opportunity to play.”

That Spurrier is even contemplating Simon, a recently signed journeyman who has 27 career rushing yards, speaks volumes about the Redskins’ current predicament at running back. Ten games into the season, Washington (4-6) has one of the least imposing rushing attacks in the NFL, a fact that was all too obvious during Sunday’s 20-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

The Redskins’ leading rusher against Carolina (Cartwright) had 32 yards. As a team, they totaled 54 yards on 22 carries, a paltry 2.5-yard average. During five stints in the red zone, running backs ran six times for 9 yards.

Not that this is a new problem. With nearly two-thirds of the season complete, the Redskins have yet to get a 100-yard game out of a single running back — they’re one of only four teams who can make such a claim. On Sunday, 14 different running backs reached the 100-yard mark, an NFL record for a single weekend.

Clearly, Washington needs a go-to guy in the backfield.

“You wish you had that,” offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said. “But I think we have a group by committee right now, and I think we kind of had an idea that’s where we were. We’ve got to keep going.”

When they released perennial 1,000-yard rusher Stephen Davis after last season and top backup Kenny Watson after the preseason, the Redskins knew they would be without a feature back in 2003. But they also believed as the season played out, someone among the group would step up and assume the role.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

Trung Canidate, who has started all eight games in which he’s been healthy this season, continues to lead the team with 87 carries and 347 yards. But that’s not saying much. Canidate ranked 33rd in the league in rushing after picking up just 18 yards on 10 attempts Sunday.

“He’s not had a lot of big holes to go through,” Spurrier said. “We thought he ran hard yesterday. He’s a 195-pound tailback, running up against some big guys. He needs some big holes to make big yards.”

Asked what Canidate has shown to warrant more playing time, Spurrier said, “I don’t have the answer to that.”

After Canidate, who declined to speak to reporters at Redskin Park yesterday, Washington’s other tailbacks have been either ineffective, injured, or in some cases, both.

Ladell Betts entered the season with perhaps the most long-term potential of anyone in Washington’s backfield. However, the second-year back missed much of the preseason with a sprained elbow and has missed the last four weeks with a fractured forearm. Even when he was healthy, Betts, last year’s second-round draft pick, averaged only 3.3 yards a rush.

Coaches and players alike still believe Betts has the best chance to become a top tailback … if he can get back on the field. He is due to have his arm X-rayed again this week, and will be cleared to practice only if the fracture has fully healed.

“We certainly think he’s a back with some big-time potential,” Spurrier said. “But unfortunately, he cracked a bone in his forearm and he hasn’t played in four weeks. So that’s where we are there.”

When Canidate (high ankle sprain) and Betts were both out two weeks ago at Dallas, Spurrier turned to Chad Morton, a scat back and kick returner with little rushing experience. Morton displayed some nice moves and broke a couple of nice runs, but then he suffered an ankle sprain, underscoring the 5-foot-7 back’s durability.

That left Cartwright as the Redskins’ only healthy rusher. With an 81-yard performance against Seattle, the 5-7, 223-pound fullback offered brief hope he could be the answer.

But Cartwright followed up his career game with a disappointing showing Sunday, which included a costly fumble just shy of the goal line. He too sprained an ankle in the game and likely will be held out of practice tomorrow.

Even without the injury, Redskins coaches have their doubts Cartwright ever can be a full-time tailback in the NFL. And yesterday, Cartwright himself said he doesn’t deserve to start this week.

“No, I don’t think I played too well yesterday,” he said. “I fumbled the ball that cost us the game. Last week’s game was OK, but you’ve got to be consistent game after game.”

All of which begs a simple question: Do the Redskins have a No.1 back on their roster, or will they be forced to go out and find one this offseason?

“I think we have a lot of guys who can play very well in this system,” tackle Jon Jansen said. “A guy we haven’t seen in awhile is Ladell Betts. Ladell’s a terrific running back who fits our system very well. Maybe him, maybe Chad, who’s been hurt a little while, too. … I think we have enough weapons; we just need to keep them healthy.”

Jansen’s coach didn’t sound as optimistic yesterday when asked to assess his team’s running back situation.

“That’s a good question,” Spurrier said. “Obviously, when we let Kenny Watson go, we thought Ladell Betts would certainly be a guy who would play an awful lot along with Trung Canidate. Then Ladell got hurt. Trung’s done OK, nothing big and special. But we didn’t have a lot of running room yesterday, either.”

Spurrier was just as lost for words when asked if he needs to see something from somebody over the next six weeks to know where his team is headed.

“That’s a good question,” Spurrier said yet again, shaking his head. “That’s a good question right there.”

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