Very quietly, Ladell Betts is having his best season as a pro.
Now, the fifth-year running back hopes to make some noise as the Redskins' primary starter as Clinton Portis recovers from a fractured right hand. Portis is expected to be sidelined 3-4 weeks after undergoing surgery on his hand on Monday.
Said Betts: "You hate to see Clinton out, but for me, I'm looking at it as an opportunity to showcase what I can do and help this team get some wins."
Betts has rushed for 366 yards so far this season--that's just five yards short of his second-highest season total set in 2004. He is second on the team in receptions with a career-high 30 catches for 231 yards.
In Sunday's 27-3 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Betts took over for the injured Portis and rushed for 83 yards on 20 carries. He also caught four passes to lead the offense.
Betts, 5-10 and 222 pounds, has always been a spot starter in his career. He has three starts, including one this year when Portis was sidelined Week 2 with a shoulder injury, in 57 NFL games.
In 2002, Betts came into the league as a second-round draft pick and Stephen Davis's backup. A year later, he backed up Trung Canidate. Since Portis arrived in 2004, Betts has quietly served in a backup role.
When Joe Gibbs returned to Washington in 2004, he envisioned Betts as a third-down back. When Al Saunders arrived in Washington last offseason, he had a similar impression of Betts.
Betts has surprised them both.
"We all think he played his heart out [against Philadelphia]," Gibbs said. "He has played his heart out the whole year. Clinton is a team guy and he has always had a lot of confidence in Ladell."
Added quarterback Mark Brunell: "With Clinton out, guys are going to have to step up. You saw a great example of that with Ladell. He's asked to run--he'll run it hard and get the yards. He's asked to pass protect--he'll do that. I'm very impressed with Ladell, not only in how he plays but how he handles everything."
The next few weeks could be key for Betts's career. He is scheduled to be a free agent after this season.
On Monday, Betts said that he has worked the last few years to refine his game. Pass protection was an issue for him early on in his career, but he has worked hard to become a more effective blocker.
"I think I've gotten more professional about what I do as far as preparation and taking full advantage of my practice reps," he said. "I think I've become more decisive and I'm hitting the holes quicker. I've become more patient and I'm letting blocks develop."
Betts, who started 42 consecutive games during his collegiate career, believes that getting consistent carries will help him get into a better rhythm in the Redskins' offense.
"I think most running backs tend to be rhythm ball-carriers," he said. "The more carries you get, the better you get. The more times you run the ball, the more you get a better feel for the defense. It's the same thing with the blockers, too. Hopefully that'll be the situation for me."
T.J. Duckett and Rock Cartwright are also expected to get some carries with Portis sidelined. Duckett, in particular, has seen limited action this season.
Said Gibbs: "It will be a good experience for us with T.J. We hate that Clinton is going to miss time, but T.J. got in [against Philadelphia] and looked good. Going forward, it will be T.J. Ladell and Rock handing the running back chores. We think a lot of all three of those guys."