- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

For most of the Washington Redskins, tonight’s preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons is nothing more than a tuneup before things start to count. Their only real objective, to be honest, is to make it through their two or three series on the field without getting injured.

But for guys like Rock Cartwright, Rufus Brown and Gari Scott, this game means so much more. With one last chance to make an impression on the coaching staff before this weekend’s final cuts, players on the bubble are treating this preseason game as though it were the Super Bowl.

“Yeah, because I know if I don’t go out there and make plays, then I won’t be here,” said Cartwright, one of four running backs competing for two backup spots. “I’m just going to go out and try to contribute on special teams, on offense. If they need me to do something on defense, I’ll do it. Anything to make this roster.”

The Redskins have 76 players entering tonight’s game at FedEx Field. By Sunday afternoon, the roster must be trimmed to 53. Eight more players can be added to the practice squad later in the week.

Do the math, and it’s easy to figure out why this game is important to so many players.

“You’ve got to look at it like it’s a job interview,” said Brown, an undrafted rookie defensive back who appears to have a legitimate shot at being among the final 53.

With that in mind, coach Joe Gibbs is unlikely to leave his starters in very long tonight. Mark Brunell, recently named the starting quarterback, and his offensive mates might not see more than a quarter of action. Several key starters on defense might even come off the bench while younger guys play the first half against the Falcons’ starting offense.

“We’re going to have to cut about 20 players from this last game,” assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams reiterated. “I don’t need to see them play against the ones that [the Falcons are] going to cut. I need to see them play against the people that we’re going to have to play against on opening day. So we’ll give all of our young guys as much time as we can in this ballgame.”

Of all the final roster battles, perhaps none has been as intriguing as the competition at running back. Cartwright joins Ladell Betts, John Simon and Sultan McCullough in a four-man scramble to fill two roster spots behind starter Clinton Portis, and it’s anybody’s guess how this dilemma will be resolved.

Betts, a second-round pick two years ago, figures to be given one of the two spots, though he’s done little this summer to seal his position. After missing the first three preseason games with a strained hamstring, he finally made his debut last week at St. Louis and ran for 15 yards on four carries. Betts figures to get plenty more touches tonight as the coaches try to evaluate his true value.

“As long as he’s feeling good, we’re going to give him more work,” Gibbs said. “I think he’s somebody we really need to look at.”

Of the other three backs in the running, McCullough has the best preseason numbers (38 carries, 137 yards). Simon (17 carries, 58 yards) has the most versatility as a pass-catcher and special teams player. Cartwright (34 carries, 89 yards) is the most experienced — but least flashy — of the bunch.

Cartwright also was dealt a setback this week when he suffered a stinger in his neck during practice. His status for tonight’s game remains uncertain, though Cartwright said he expects to play.

“You’ve got two really good guys ahead of me in Ladell and Clinton,” he said. “But I can’t control that. [The coaches] are going to make the decision. Hopefully, they’ll make the correct one.”

Every training camp features the surprising emergence of an undrafted rookie or two, and Brown could be this year’s example. A talented cornerback from Florida State, he has impressed the coaching staff with his play and appears to be in the running with fellow undrafted rookie corner Garnell Wilds for one of the final roster spots.

The 5-foot-9, 188-pound Brown said he thinks he has made a strong case for himself between his hustle and his consistent play.

“I’m still going to make some mistakes, but I’m just trying to be consistent,” he said. “I’m a hard worker.”

Scott, on the other hand, may be the victim of a numbers game. An explosive wide receiver/kick returner from Michigan State, he’s seen plenty of action this preseason but isn’t likely to surpass former second-round pick Taylor Jacobs on the depth chart as Washington’s No.5 receiver.

Like a host of others, he’ll get one last chance tonight to make his case.

“It’s hard to think about it,” Scott said. “Obviously, I want to be here. I like the guys. I like the coaches. But it’s not my decision. I think I’ve played well enough where if I don’t stick here, hopefully another team will give me a shot. We’ll see how it goes.”

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