Saturday, January 23, 2010

2009 Running Backs Review

First a few thoughts on Clinton Portis. I don’t know at this point if he will be back next year, but I am not a part of the crowd trying to run him out of town. There is no doubt that he has a ton of miles on him and is in the decline phase of his career. But he is far from done, and can run very effectively when his offensive line isn’t collapsing in front of him. Whatever you may think about his attitude towards practice, on gamedays I don’t think there’s anyone out there who fights harder. If there’s a yard to be had, he will get it. He will not break a big play, but he won’t leave any yards on the field. You combine that tenacity with being probably the best (and hardest-hitting) pass blocking running back in football, and you have a guy who is an asset to the team.

But Portis is unpopular these days, because his eccentricities make him an easy target for anger after a 4-12 season. None of us who aren’t actually employed by the team can really judge if his attitude is a serious enough issue to affect the team’s fortunes. But I will say this: given the beating he has taken over the years (the beating he has inflicted on himself for our benefit and pleasure) there is a case to be made that he should avoid as much unnecessary contact as possible. And under Gibbs, at least, his practice habits had the full blessing of the coach (we just don’t know enough of the dynamics under Zorn). Now given that he may well have to compete for a job next year, he will probably have to put himself through the same grind as everyone else because he is clearly no longer indispensable. If Mike Shanahan judges that Portis has the necessary commitment, and I am not convinced that he doesn’t, I think there’s a good chance he could help the team again in 2010. By the same token, I would trust Shanahan’s judgment if he decides to cut Portis loose – whether its for personality issues or simply because he considers him to be worn out. But his status is complex, and getting rid of him is not nearly the no-brainer that the pitchfork crowd would have you believe.

Of course Portis’ long-time backup, Ladell Betts, might have an impact on Portis’ future job security. The two would form a viable platoon, but given that they are both old (remember Betts is actually older than Portis, although with fewer miles on him) there seems a significant chance that only one would be retained. Betts was generally considered to have run better than Portis in 2009, although in my opinion the blocking early on was even worse than it was later in the year. Betts certainly played well, but I think Portis was never given a chance. One major point in Betts’ favor – he pass protects nearly as well as Portis (but not quite) and is very good as a receiver.

That leaves the three different guys who cycled through the backfield after Portis and Betts went down: Quinton Ganther, Marcus Mason, and Rock Cartwright.

Of those three Ganther showed the most as a runner. He displayed exceptional vision and quickness through the hole, which came in handy as he often was able to compensate for the blocking breaking down in front of him by finding a new hole or shooting through one just it was about to close up. He also has some very strong legs that let him power through some pretty solid tackles. The one running skill he lacks is any semblance of breakaway speed (I know; familiar story on this team). But despite how impressive he is as a ballcarrier, his pass protection was just unacceptable. He would fail to pick up even the most obvious of blitzes, and Jason Campbell has a lot of bruises directly attributable to Ganther. The guy really can run – but if he poses a risk to our quarterback’s health I don’t want him on the field.

Marcus Mason might be in a tough spot. Despite being everyone’s preseason hero the last couple years, he ran less impressively than Ganther, and his pass protection was just as awful. He might be in camp in 2010, but given the stiff backfield competition I think he’s a long shot to stick around.

Rock Cartwright, God bless him, finally got another crack at showing he can be a “real” running back, and despite playing well he had the misfortune of Ganther coming out of nowhere and outshining him. Rock ran about how I think most of us expected – competently but not spectacularly. Now there’s something to be said for steady competence, but unfortunately it’s just not enough to earn serious carries. He did prove that he was by far the most polished receiver of the three late season backups, however. He’s obviously not the kind of weapon you can split out wide, but he ran traditional running back routes with noticeable crispness and timing and created a number of reliable short completions. Rock missed his share of blitz pickups as well, but while he is visibly much worse at pass pro than Portis and Betts he was still light years ahead of Ganther or Mason.

It’s pretty much a crapshoot who will be the Redskins 2010 backs, but one thing that seems to be agreed upon is that the position as a whole needs an infusion of two factors: youth and breakaway speed. We’ve got youth options on the roster now, but speed may need to be added from outside.

There are three guys that come to mind that will be unrestricted free agents if we don’t go capless (I will repeat once more: if you want the Redskins to be able to address their multiple needs this offseason, pray for a salary cap).

Jerious Norwood – He has played very well in Atlanta when given opportunities and is consistently successful as both a runner and receiver. His market value will be depressed because he has struggled with injuries – meaning we could bring him in without blowing our (hypothetical) salary cap. FO’s advanced stats consistently love him, and in a capped offseason he would probably be my first choice.

Darren Sproles – Frankly I think this guy is overrated, but he certainly fits our need. And despite his tininess he has shown that he can hold up as a traditional runner if needed. He would certainly be a more interesting guy to take screens or even line up wide on occasion. But he would be much more expensive than Norwood and bring in a lot of press attention (I’ve had enough of high expectations for awhile).

Jerome Harrison – Another back, like Norwood, who has consistently excelled as both a runner and a receiver. The problem here is that the reason he has mostly been buried on the bench in Cleveland is that he is completely ineffective in pass protection. He may be outstanding with the ball in his hands (especially for being so unknown), but as you know by now I have little patience for backs who put the quarterback’s life in danger.

Of course odds are that a new CBA won’t be reached in time to save the salary cap, so none of the above three guys will hit free agency. In that event I can only think of two more options off the top of my head:

There has been speculation for some time that the Saints would release Reggie Bush after the season because his huge scheduled salary for next year cannot be justified by his rather modest role in the offense. In the past I would have objected that he was useful only as a receiver – he had developed a reputation of being virtually useless as a traditional ballcarrier. But this year he seems to have figured it out and has been running much more effectively between the tackles runner. Of course that development may make it more likely that the Saints would retain him… but if they don’t and my assessment is correct, he could wind up here. As I mentioned above it would generate way too much press frenzy – they guy would be brought in as a role player, albeit a useful one, but you know the media would insist he was supposed to be a super star simply because he was good in college. But without a salary cap most other options will be (unjustly) trapped with their teams, so if he’s released he has to be a serious possibility.

And there may be one final option already on the roster: Anthony Alridge. We have seen almost nothing of Alridge, so I do not have an opinion on him. But he was signed last summer based on a glowing recommendation from one Mike Shanahan… so just maybe we already have our speed guy.

So let’s assume we add a speed guy, and from there speculate on what the 2010 RB situation might look like. It seems like we could split the backs into categories:

Old but well-rounded – Portis, Betts, and Rock

Young and talented but flawed – Ganther and Mason

Speed guy – TBD

Could it be we are heading to a three man committee, and each of those first two categories represents a direct competition?

If so Rock has no chance to beat out the other two in his group so that could leave Portis and Betts competing for one job (it seems like one of them has to make the team based on pass protection alone, age be damned).

Then for the sake of youth either Ganther or Mason is retained – hopefully the deciding factor would be whoever works the hardest on learning to pick up a blitz.

Speed Guy, if he’s an added veteran, is obviously safe in his role (let’s assume for now it’s not Alridge, who would of course have to prove himself).

So we could end up with a potential three-headed backfield of Betts, Ganther, and Speed Guy (assuming Ganther learns to block a little). Or Portis, Ganther, and Speed Guy (sorry Mason).

But if Speed Guy is added perhaps Shanahan and Bruce Allen will decide that the backfield’s age issue has been sufficiently addressed, and won’t feel obligated to reserve a roster spot for youth. In that case Portis, Betts, and Speed Guy could make for a very competent backfield, at least for next year.

Of course if we fail to add a Speed Guy, we can keep both our old veterans and still have a youth movement and keep whoever shows the most improvement between Ganther and Mason (yes, we could end up keeping four tailbacks, but realistically only the top three would get meaningful carries or even be activated on gamedays).

Sadly, the odd man out in all of these scenarios seems to be Rock Cartwright. As a running back he is in a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none quandary, and of course he doesn’t have youth as an advantage. And if Speed Guy turns up, he could well excel as a kickoff returner (Jerious Norwood especially) and Rock, if he is to make the team, would be as a pure special teamer. At his age, that just doesn’t make sense. He is already likely to be cut before camp even opens, and his best bet is to be re-signed at a much lower salary.  But even so I have a hard time finding a role for the guy.

For the hell of it, vote in the comments section on which of the following hypothetical backfield committees you would prefer to see in 2010:

A) Portis, Betts, Speed Guy

B) Betts, Ganther, Speed Guy

C) Portis, Ganther, Speed Guy

D) Betts, Mason, Speed Guy

E) Portis, Mason, Speed Guy

F) Betts, Ganther, Rock

G) Portis, Ganther, Rock

H) Betts, Mason, Rock

I) Portis, Mason, Rock

J) Portis, Betts, Rock

K) Ganther, Mason, Speed Guy

L) Ganther, Mason, Rock

Good God – when I started that list I didn’t realize how long it would get. And yet they all seem plausible. It will be an interesting offseason.


  1. A. No need to make crazy moves at RB other than adding some speed, as you stated this all changes if Shanny thinks that Portis doesn't have much tread left on his tires.

  2. No imperative to get younger for the sake of getting younger?

  3. No chance of drafting a young speed guy in the latter rounds of the draft and then going with option A? Or should *all* the picks be O-line?

  4. Well its possible. But given that we have no 3rd and there are other needs for the top two picks, we're talking 4th round or lower. So its conceivable you could find a player there who can contribute immediately, but its certainly a long shot and I wouldn't want to plan around it.

  5. B.
    Even with Betts coming off of surgery, he has the explosiveness and power of a much younger runner because of how little he's been used...With Betts/Ganther running between the tackles, and a home-run threat as a changeup RB, I think the backfield would be set for a few years yet.

    That's assuming, of course, that the backfiled isn't full of linebackers and DLs half a second after the snap. Ultimately, any and all of these guys live and die by the offensive line, and that terrifies me.

  6. I can't help but think that Portis, Betts, and Ganther are all gone. I can see Cartwright sticking due to having ST skill, but who really knows.

    Portis has frustrated his teammates with his special status and I think Shanahan will let him go, especially considering his age, health, and salary. Betts needs another year to recover his full speed, but he's not an especially quick RB in the first place. Ganther played the best he could this year but I don't think he offers much. Maybe Shanahan can get something out of him but I'm not sure he wants the bruiser that Ganther is.

    I would *love* to be proven wrong on any or all of the above. It would solve a lot of problems and help the Redskins moving forward. But I don't think that's the case and I expect us to draft a RB (4th or 5th rounder) and sign at least two more RBs (most likely from the pool of unrestricted FA, un-drafted FA, June cuts, etc.).

    And, as Rob said, none of them will be the full-year starter. RBBC. I'm glad for it, too. Go with the hot hand. Keep everyone healthy. Give everyone a chance. I was disappointed Rock didn't get more opportunities. And even this year when Zorn committed, publicly, to balancing the work load, it didn't really play out that way. Under Shanahan, if Cartwright makes the team, he'll get opportunities.

  7. With Ganther, I wouldn't be surprised if he got cut in the first week of August or if he ran for 1,000 yards. He is clearly so raw, but he's so good at picking a good hole and attacking it that I could picture him excelling as the classic "one-cut" back.

    And I agree that a committee is a near-certainty - but God knows who will make it up.

  8. A or C. Portis may be silly and overpaid, but he's still a damn good HB. He just needs speed to compliment him. Betts is a solid backup and contributer, though we may opt for Ganther since he's younger and whatnot.

    I definitely want a speed guy added as a change of pace. Really, I'd like 4 kept. Maybe Portis, Betts, and Speed guy with Ganther kept around and less frequently activated/used much in the event of age catching up to the others or injury.

    It saddens me to see Rock out as he's been a good and very dedicated contributer, but you're right that it could be hard to justify a roster spot on him. We'll see what plays out.

    Also, I can't help but notice you didn't address the possibility of adding a speed guy in the draft. Someone like a Jahvid Best in the second, maybe, if he falls a little or if we end up trading down/acquiring more picks, a Dexter McCluster or somesuch.

  9. I left out the possibility of drafting one for a couple of reasons.

    a) I know little about college football, so am not qualified to speculate on mid-round draft picks
    b) I'm hoping the 1st and 2nd round picks go to O-linemen or quarterbacks (we don't have a 3rd)
    c) Anyone taken in the late rounds cannot be reliable enough to produce immediately that we could plan around it.

    So its a possibility, but I think at this early stage we have to work with what we got.

    And I don't know if you've seen the recent Chester Taylor rumors... it's something I hadn't really thought of, but I have to admit it makes sense. Of course he would render this entire post obsolete.