- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 8, 2009

When the Washington Redskins opted to keep four tailbacks on their 53-man roster Saturday, it produced three developments: Marcus Mason had shown enough to avoid another year on the practice squad, Rock Cartwright is strictly a special teams player and Ladell Betts ultimately could be the odd man out.

As the Redskins began preparations Monday for the season opener at the New York Giants, the three players’ emotions ran the gamut.

Mason was relieved.

“I’m blessed to have this opportunity,” he said.

Betts was in the dark as to his role.

“I have no idea,” he said. “That’s something the coaches have to address.”

And Cartwright was ticked.

“I would rather be just meeting with the special teams coach because I know I’m not going to get any plays at running back,” he said.

The Redskins have created a numbers problem because they’re so high on Mason, who led the NFL in rushing last preseason (317 yards) and gained 88 yards this preseason while getting several chances to play with the starters.

Coach Jim Zorn acknowledged all three reserves can’t be active on game day.

The locks are Clinton Portis as the starter and, most likely, Cartwright as a core special teams player. That will leave Betts and Mason to fight for playing time.

Betts wasn’t cut because it would have triggered a $3 million hit on this year’s salary cap, severely limiting the Redskins’ in-season spending flexibility.

Running backs coach Stump Mitchell confirmed the depth chart and Mason’s ascension over Cartwright.

“We think [Mason] is a talented running back,” Mitchell said. “We went with two quarterbacks, and it just worked out for him this year. We know he can run the ball; he has good hands and good vision.”

Mitchell said if Portis and Betts get banged up early in the season and can’t practice, Mason would be included in the game plan.

“Last year, they couldn’t practice during the course of the week, and [Shaun] Alexander took all the reps but those two guys played in the game,” he said. “It wouldn’t be that way this year. If Mason takes all the reps, he would definitely take some carries.”

Mason made the Redskins’ opening week roster two years ago only to be shuffled back to the practice squad a week later. The Georgetown Prep product rushed for 1,847 yards as a senior at Youngstown State but went undrafted in April 2007.

The Redskins cut Mason last preseason, and he spent time on the Baltimore practice squad and the New York Jets’ 53-man roster, but he still has not appeared in a regular-season game.

If Mason develops into a No. 2 back, it would be another position at which the Redskins got younger (and cheaper). Betts and Cartwright are both in their eighth season with the Redskins.

Cartwright has just 12 carries the last three years, and only injuries would allow him to get any work on offense.

“I’m basically labeled now as a special teams guy,” Cartwright said. “As far as getting toyed with, I think I have. You guys have seen it. Who hasn’t seen it? … I won’t go to them and complain about it. I saw it coming. When you see me in [a preseason] game in the third quarter and I’m an eight-year vet and special teams captain, what does that tell you? Apparently, I’m not a good running back.”

Betts carried only 11 times in the preseason and was strictly a third-down player. In last year’s season finale against San Francisco, Betts played on 10 of the Redskins’ 13 third-down snaps.

If Mason continues to develop in pass protection and adds another special teams unit, Zorn’s decision may get easier.

“I envision [Mason] being in the situation where if he becomes a core special teams player, he can make a case for being active,” Zorn said. “He’ll be on that bubble trying to get active. … Ladell’s trying to work his way on different special teams as well. I don’t know if he’s the odd man out. I bet I will deal with that every week. It won’t be a set situation.”

On Saturday, Mason ignored his vow to leave his phone off and went to Redskin Park.

Executive vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato approached Mason with the news.

“Vinny walked down the stairs and said, ‘I need to talk to you,’ ” Mason said. “I was like, ‘No, are you serious?’ And he said, ‘Not this time. You’re good.’ After that, I was able to relax.”

But like every other new player, Mason said he’ll do whatever is necessary.

“I have to make my mark on special teams to stay around,” he said. “I’ll help this team doing anything, whether it’s third down, first down or short yardage.”

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