Through July, I will be running positional breakdowns for the Washington Redskins. Each assessment will be broken down into four areas: Past Statistics, Experience/Potential, Positional Competition, and Intangibles.
Today we’ll be looking at the Running Backs on the Redskins’ roster for 2009. Washington’s rushing attack was one of the most effective in the entire NFL, even record-breaking at points. However, the rushing game, along with the entire offense seemed to fall apart after October and there was quite a bit of strain between Clinton Portis and Coach Jim Zorn. How will they fare in 2009?
The focal point of the Redskin offense is Clinton Portis, who has been the team’s leading rusher four out of the last five seasons. Portis has rushed for 6,101 yards over the past five years and has averaged about 4.1 yards per carry since joining the Skins after the now infamous Champ Bailey trade. Portis finished fourth in the entire league in 2008 in total rushing yards, tenth in rushing touchdowns, and third among running backs in first downs (75). However, Portis had of five games early in the season where he rushed for over 700 yards and failed to break 300 for the final five games (four losses) of the season. Which Portis will show up in ’09? He was plagued with injuries after his early season workload, and that has to be a concern for the coaching staff.
Portis is now entering his eighth season in the NFL, and has racked up over 9200 yards rushing in his first seven years. While many people say that the shelf life of an NFL running back goes until age 30, Portis has the mileage of a 30 year old rather than a 28 year old. That being said, Portis has a huge competitive streak; probably a more tenacious personality than the Redskins have had at running back in a long time. Time will tell how long he can keep up his consistency. That will determine his legacy in Washington. Ladell Betts spent the 2006 season spelling Portis as the starter, and flourished with over 1000 yards rushing. He managed to put up those numbers without an entire season’s workload. Betts continues to have fresh legs because that season was his last major contribution to the team, and has only been used in spot duty over the past two seasons (after earning a fat contract too). He does have the experience to step in when needed. Rock Cartwright has been known to stand in well when needed, but he’s entering his 8th season and hasn’t made a huge impact on offense to date, so his impact will largely remain on special teams. Third-year player Marcus Mason was re-signed after spending 2008 with the Baltimore Ravens, and he seems to have the biggest upside of any back on the Redskins roster. He was a training camp/preseason wonder in 2008 and many people were sad to see him be released. It will be interesting to see where he fits in this year.
Clinton Portis is the unquestioned starter in this spot, and I don’t expect anyone to challenge that (as much as Betts feels he should be the no. 1). Betts seems to have the backup spot solidified, at least with his contract, but the interesting question falls with Cartwright and Mason. Cartwright has been a fan favorite for many years, and seems to be one of the big character guys in the locker room. After losing a guy like Jon Jansen this past offseason, it’s hard for the coaching staff to justify dumping another vocal leader after camp, but Mason has an opportunity to make Cartwright expendable. Mason is explosive and strong, albeit diminutive. He showed some evasiveness last season and was only cut due to a numbers game. I expect him to come into camp with a chip on his shoulder, and I would not be surprised to see him unseat Rock in the depth chart, if not on the roster altogether.
The big question at running back this season will be how Clinton Portis and Jim Zorn manage to coexist. Portis is a huge competitor, but has been known to quit for coaches that don’t seem to understand him. Zorn, entering his second year, does not have the hall of fame resume to lean on like Joe Gibbs, and therefore does not have as much room to give Clinton Portis all the freedoms he wishes (like taking himself out of the game when he feels like it). How Zorn manages Portis’s ego will go a long way to determining how this season will turn out. If Portis remains happy, he will play hard and perform. If things go even a little awry, Portis might be lost for the year and the offense could go in the tank. If Portis agrees to it, I believe that spelling him a little more often will go a long way to keeping everyone happy and fresh. Betts and the other two (or one depending on how it shakes out) are perfectly capable of sharing the load, so it would be prudent for Zorn to try and utilize them.
Running Back SHOULD be one of the strong suits for the Redskins going into 2009, but there are a lot of factors that could derail the rushing offense before it gets off the ground. I believe that Portis’s durability might become a bigger issue than his attitude, but if Zorn can manage his carries while still managing to keep him happy, it could be one of the biggest strengths for the team. I believe that Mason will beat Cartwright out on the depth chart, but Rock will stick around for his special teams value (at least for this year). I think that the Redskins should, and will have a top 10 rushing offense that could jump to top 5 if it’s utilized properly.
What do you think? Can Zorn manage Portis’s ego all season or will there be a blow-up? Who will carry the load this season and beyond? Let me know what you think in the comments section!