- The Washington Times - Friday, November 27, 2009

Life changed in a big way for Stump Mitchell last year after he moved across the country from Seattle to coach the Washington Redskins’ running backs. New job, new team, new town. But he was familiar with Rock Cartwright.

“When he came up as an unrestricted free agent [in early 2008], I tried to get our guys to get him,” Mitchell said, referring to his previous team, the Seahawks. “They wouldn’t bite on him. All I told them was what I saw on film, on video, and I liked what I saw.”

In Cartwright, the Redskins’ third-string running back, kickoff return man and special teams captain, Mitchell sees a bit of his undersized, ball-carrying self from the 1980s. The St. Louis Cardinals took Mitchell, a running back from the Citadel, in the ninth round (226th overall) of the 1981 draft. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 188 pounds, he first backed up Ottis Anderson while restlessly waiting for a chance to start.

Now the 5-8, 213-pound Cartwright, picked by the Redskins in the seventh round (257th overall) in 2002 out of Kansas State, is finally getting another chance of his own. Because of injuries to Clinton Portis (concussion) and Ladell Betts (two torn knee ligaments), Cartwright will start at running back for the first time in nearly six years Sunday when the Redskins visit the Philadelphia Eagles.

“There’s no question in terms of his toughness or in terms of his ability to play the position,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell eventually became the starter, and a 1,000-yard rusher, in St. Louis. That likely won’t happen to Cartwright despite his rock-solid conviction that he is good enough to start.

Still, Mitchell said: “I can definitely relate. Not only to the way Rock plays, but to his attitude of wanting to be that guy. I was there, too.”

Betts got hurt in the first quarter of last week’s 7-6 loss to Dallas, and Cartwright came in and ran for 67 yards on 13 carries (he had a combined 12 carries the past three years). He also caught seven passes for 72 yards.

“It’s a dirty game, a dirty business,” said Cartwright, who turns 30 on Thursday. “But I’ve prepared for this a long time ago, and when the opportunity presented itself and I tried to make the best of it. … I prepare myself every week as if I’m gonna be the starter, knowing that I’m not gonna be the starter. But I do that anyway.”

This will be Cartwright’s fourth career start in his eight NFL seasons. Earlier this year, he watched somewhat grumpily as newcomer and local product Marcus Mason got some work at running back instead of him. Cartwright went the first six games without touching the ball from scrimmage. He wasn’t happy about it - who would be? - but he was never a distraction.

“He said his piece; he felt a certain way, yet he wasn’t disgruntled and didn’t try to split himself away from the team or tell everybody, ‘I’m done with this group,’ ” Redskins coach Jim Zorn said. “He hung in there, and that’s what a captain does.”

The circumstances could be better, but Cartwright’s longtime teammates are happy for him. They appreciate his infectious enthusiasm and leadership, how he has continued through the years to work and prepare, to mentor younger players and accept his role.

“Rock plays with a lot of passion, and he carries his heart on his sleeve,” quarterback Jason Campbell said. “You have to respect the guy’s integrity and the way he comes out and plays.”

Injured tackle Chris Samuels, a 10-year veteran and co-captain on offense, said: “He’s a guy I’ve respected since he stepped into the NFL. He’s always had the talent to go out there and perform well. I call him ‘Big Heart.’ He’s not big in size, but that thing in his chest that beats, I’m telling you, no one has a bigger one.”

Cartwright started the final three games of the 2003 season, which turned out to be the end of Steve Spurrier’s short-lived tenure as the Redskins’ head coach. In a precursor of Sunday, Cartwright played because the two backs ahead of him, Trung Canidate and Betts, were hurt.

Canidate led the team in rushing with 600 yards that year, still the lowest team-leading total since 1988. After the season, the Redskins brought Joe Gibbs back as coach and traded cornerback Champ Bailey for Clinton Portis, who had run for more than 3,000 yards in his two years in Denver.

“When they brought C.P. in and gave him all the money, I knew that he was gonna be the guy and that Ladell was gonna be the No. 2 guy and I had to be No. 3,” Cartwright said.

Cartwright played a lot under Spurrier. In 2003, when he was about 20 pounds heavier, he had 107 carries for 411 yards (both career highs by far) and excelled in short-yardage situations. But Cartwright was inactive in Gibbs’ first three games, even missing out on special teams. How come? “I have no clue,” he said.

Back in good graces, Cartwright became the regular kick returner in 2006 after Portis got hurt and Betts took his place as the starter. That season, Cartwright broke Brian Mitchell’s club record for kickoff return yards and is now second to Mitchell on the team’s career yardage list, a record that is likely unbreakable; Mitchell also is the NFL’s all-time leader in that category.

Depending on the point of view, Cartwright was fourth on the depth chart behind Mason or tied with Mason for third entering this season. Cartwright said he was fourth.

“He and Mason were neck-and-neck,” Mitchell said. “But Rock was the better special teams player.”

Mason made the team but was cut in October, then re-signed this week. Cartwright, meanwhile, said he was never worried.

“If it didn’t work out here, it would have worked out somewhere else because I’m a special teams guy,” he said. “I can play special teams, and I can run the football.”

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