In the summer of 2007, I did an analysis of Ladell Betts’ 2006 season. Prior to 2006, Betts was a bit player for the Redskins since being drafted by the team in 2002. He battled injuries in his first two seasons with the club, and once Clinton Portis arrived in 2004, Betts assumed the primary backup role. Portis was a workhorse in his first two seasons in Washington, touching the ball (carries plus receptions) 765 times while Betts had handled it just 204 times over the same span, giving Portis 79% of the workload between the two backs. In the 2006 preseason, Portis dislocated his shoulder and was limited to just seven games and 127 carries throughout the year. 2006 would be the first (and as it turned out, only) season that Ladell Betts got consistent work.
Betts was very good in 2006, recording the 19th 1,000-yard campaign in team history (Portis has since added the 20th and 21st). He rushed for 1,154 yards and added another 445 yards receiving, an impressive showing for a first time starter. But what made it especially impressive was that he did it on just 245 carriers and 53 receptions, an average of 5.36 yards per touch. That wasn’t just good; it was good for the best mark ever among Redskin 1,000-yard rushers:
Year Player Tchs Yrds YPT
2006 Betts, Ladell 298 1599 5.36
1970 Brown, Larry 274 1466 5.35
1972 Brown, Larry 317 1689 5.33
1993 Brooks, Reggie 244 1249 5.12
1976 Thomas, Mike 282 1391 4.93
1999 Davis, Stephen 313 1516 4.84
1985 Rogers, George 235 1122 4.77
1978 Riggins, John 278 1313 4.72
2008 Portis, Clinton 370 1705 4.61
1979 Riggins, John 288 1316 4.57
1990 Byner, Earnest 328 1498 4.57
2005 Portis, Clinton 382 1732 4.53
2000 Davis, Stephen 365 1631 4.47
2007 Portis, Clinton 372 1651 4.44
1991 Byner, Earnest 308 1356 4.40
2001 Davis, Stephen 384 1637 4.26
1996 Allen, Terry 379 1547 4.08
1995 Allen, Terry 369 1541 4.18
2004 Portis, Clinton 383 1550 4.05
1986 Rogers, George 306 1227 4.01
1984 Riggins, John 334 1282 3.84
1983 Riggins, John 380 1376 3.62
Anytime you top Larry Brown on a list, you’ve done something special. The performance did not go unnoticed, as the Redskins inked Betts to a five-year contract extension late in 2006. Yet going into the 2007 season, Portis was still considered the undisputed starter. Part of this was because of his reputation has an All-Pro player. Part of this was because of the sizable investment the Redskins had made in him. And part of this was because of the things that yards-per-touch can’t show: Betts struggled with fumbles in 2006, fumbling once every 49.7 touches. Portis, on the other hand, was very stout in that department, coughing the ball up just once every 175.3 touches in 2005 and 2006 combined. Clinton was undeniably a more physical pass blocker. And anecdotally, Portis was the better short-yardage runner as well.
Still, it’s obvious that Betts was a weapon in 2006. Five yards a touch is five yards a touch. The rationale for keeping both going into the 2007 season was that you needed two backs to win in the NFL, logic that makes a lot of sense. So how have the Redskins since split the load between their two 1,000-yard backs?
Years Player Tchs Yrds YPT
07-08 Portis, Clinton 742 3,356 4.52
07-08 Betts, Ladell 197 915 4.64
Rather than embrace a true two-back system, or even anything close to it, the Redskins reverted right back to the 2004-2005 level workload. Portis again received 79% of the touches between the two backs, leaving Betts with a mere 21%. To be fair, Betts missed three weeks due to injury in 2008, but even if we exclude those games, his share only jumps to 23%. The production doesn’t seem to justify the discrepancy. Betts was actually a hair better than Portis, at least in terms of yards-per-touch. What’s the explanation?
Betts is a fumbler. Betts has improved his fumbling rate, fumbling once every 98.5 touches in 2007 and 2008, while Portis slid badly, putting the ball on the ground once every 82.4 touches. Over the past two seasons, it has been Betts who has taken better care of the ball.
The pass blocking? Maybe, although even this has to be questioned. Portis is undeniably still a physical blocker, but there was some sniping between Portis and Zorn that Clinton wasn’t releasing from blocks correctly. In fact, that was the primary reason that Portis was temporarily benched against Baltimore.
Portis is just a better short-yardage back. Let’s see what the numbers say. Here we have the 2008 rushing attempts on any carry with less than two yards to go for a first down or touchdown. FD is the number first downs (or touchdowns) that the player converted. FD% is the success rate:
Year Player Att Yds FD FD%
2008 Portis, Clinton 36 148 26 68.4
2008 Betts, Ladell 13 58 12 92.3
We’re running into small sample sizes here, but still, Betts was almost perfect in short-yardage situations, while Portis converted just over two out of three attempts.
Fine, maybe they are closer than we think. Still, the overall production levels were close. An extra .12 yards-a-touch isn’t a huge deal, so what difference does it make who gets the snaps? It is indeed true that .12 yards-a-touch isn’t a huge deal. If the roles had been reversed, the Redskins would have theoretically only picked up 62.32 yards on the entire season.
What is a huge deal is that playing running back in the NFL is a brutal job, and Portis wears down as the season goes on. To illustrate this, I charted Portis’s yards per touch in each the last two seasons’ four quadrants. 07-08 Q1 is his numbers from the first four games of the 2007 and 2008 season, 07-08 Q2 is his numbers from the second four games of the 2007 and 2008 season, and so on. I also threw in the one playoff game:
Quadrant Tchs Yrds YPT
07-08 Q1 167 767 4.59
07-08 Q2 201 1039 5.17
07-08 Q3 180 757 4.21
07-08 Q4 194 793 4.09
Playoffs 24 80 3.33
There is no denying that Portis slows down late in the season. And at roughly 330 carries a year, who wouldn’t? If Portis was your only option, that would be one thing. But why kill your top guy when you have a very viable option in Betts? Additionally, it’s reasonable to assume that Betts will perform even better if he is given the chance to get into a rhythm. Why not give Betts 40% of the carries, or even 30% rather than just 21%?
The coaches must see something in the film that the numbers don’t show. For whatever reason, Joe Gibbs and then Jim Zorn both believed the team was better off with Portis on the field. I sincerely hope this is the truth. But both coaches made comments before the 2007 and 2008 seasons that make me question that.
Going into the 2007 season, Gibbs apparently planned on using both backs. “We think they’re interchangeable,” said Gibbs, according to USA Today. “We don’t think there’s any play in our offense that we would worry about one player or the other handling.” And at first, things went according to that plan. Through the first three weeks, Betts received 38% of the touches. But as you might remember, Week 3 was also the game that Betts was stopped on the goal line against the Giants. Many questioned why Betts was in the game rather than Portis, and following the bye week, Betts went back to a 20% share.
In 2008, Zorn was impressed, even surprised at how well Betts played in the second preseason game, and proclaimed that, “We have two strong running backs there.” But when the season rolled around, Betts was back to his usual workload, getting 23% of the touches before getting hurt in Week 6 and missing the next three games. Late in the season, Portis was infamously benched in the Ravens game because Zorn felt Betts was better prepared to play. Portis threw a well-documented hissy fit, and the following week in Cincinnati Betts only got two touches. In the low point of the season, the Redskins fell to the 1-11-1 Bengals, effectively ending any playoff hopes.
So let’s review:
- When given a chance to play full time in 2006, Betts averaged a higher yards-per-touch than Portis has ever achieved since coming to the Redskins.
- Betts has averaged a higher (albeit slight) yards-per-touch average than Portis the last two seasons.
- Betts has fumbled less frequently than Portis in the last two seasons.
- In 2008, Betts converted a higher percentage of short-yardage situations than Portis.
- Portis’s yards-per-touch has declined in the third and fourth quadrants of the past two seasons.
- In the past two seasons, two completely different head coaches have combined to give Portis 79% of the snaps between the two backs.
At first glance, it doesn’t make sense. Unfortunately, there is simple explanation for all this, one that I fear is far too close to the truth:
Portis isn’t happy when his playing time is reduced, regardless of the reason. And when Portis isn’t happy, no one at Redskins Park is happy. Rather than allow the cancer that is a pissed-off Clinton Portis to spread, the team continues to give him the bulk of the work.
It’s just a theory. But if true, I’d be hard pressed not to agree with John Riggins, who believes that the Redskins will never be true contenders with Portis on the team. The good news is that if the Redskins do choose to part ways with Clinton, they already have a good (and well-rested) player ready to take his place.
I couldn’t decide whether or not to include this, so I’ll just put it here. Take this with a grain of salt, but including the playoffs, the Redskins are 6-1 over the last two seasons when Ladell Betts touches the ball at least 10 times; 8-6 when he touches the ball five to nine times; and 3-9 when he touches the ball less than five times. I hesitate to mention this because while it might show that the Redskins are more likely to win when Ladell Betts touches the ball, it could also mean that Ladell Betts is more likely to touch the ball when the Redskins are winning. But it’s still something to keep in mind.