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Michael Wilbon

Seemingly Backward In the Backfield

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page D01


Let's see the Fantasy League expert who had Clinton Portis being relegated to an afterthought while foreseeing Jerome Bettis carrying the Steelers to the team's longest winning streak since 1976. Let's see the person who figured on Portis, 23 years old and coming off a pair of 1,500-yard rushing seasons, running only twice in the second half while betting that in the same game the 32-year-old Bettis would be banging his way to 100 yards on 31 carries.

Even if you thought the Bus, running once again behind a worthy offensive line and without a knee brace, had some more rollicking rides left in him, you couldn't have imagined Portis would go from 147 yards in Detroit three weeks ago to getting fewer carries than Ladell Betts here Sunday against the latest edition of the Steel Curtain.

Clinton Portis searches for room on one of only six carries. Portis had 17 yards, while the Steelers' Jerome Bettis had 100 on 31 carries. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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We've reached that point of the NFL season where the good teams, such as the 10-1 Steelers, look ready to start the playoffs now while the bad teams, such as the 3-8 Redskins, struggle to the point where nothing they do works or makes much sense.

Portis came into the game having carried the football more than any back in the NFL and as the league's sixth-leading rusher. But against the Steelers, Portis carried a measly six times for 17 yards. This is a guy the Redskins are paying $50 million. This is the back the Redskins gave up Champ Bailey and a second-round pick to get, and on Sunday he got two fewer carries than Betts, whom the Redskins could have cut last summer and hardly anybody would have noticed. Afterward, Joe Gibbs said Betts was playing mostly on passing downs, that he wanted to throw the ball downfield instead of run it. "I'm sure he'll probably be upset about it," Gibbs said of Portis. "I expect him to be."

If Steve Spurrier had arrived at the strategic decision to run Betts ahead of Portis and to trust the wildly erratic Patrick Ramsey instead of Portis I'd be sharpening a hickory switch about now. But Gibbs, by virtue of three Super Bowl championships and a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, has earned a benefit of the doubt that doesn't extend to everybody. Even so, Betts was in the game on more than obvious passing situations. He was in on second and short, even a third and short. And Portis was on the bench for much of that time, sitting dangerously close to Mark Brunell. That's $25 million worth of signing bonuses sitting on the sideline in a close game. These aren't players Gibbs inherited; he dearly wanted Brunell and signed off on Portis. They were supposed to be the future of the team.

Portis is responsible for what little offense the Redskins have produced this season. The only three games the Redskins have won -- against the Buccaneers, Bears and Lions -- they rode 100-yard rushing performances by Portis. When he doesn't get the requisite carries, the Redskins' offense stinks, plain and simple. It's inept. Portis is the guy who rushed for 29 touchdowns in 29 games with the Broncos, but has rushed for only two touchdowns with the Redskins. The Redskins have gone, unthinkably, seven games without a rushing touchdown. Maybe it's Portis. Maybe the coaches think it's Portis. But for now, I'm going with more than a half-dozen defensive players who have gone against the Redskins this season and told me that Portis is the victim of an absolutely dreadful passing game that can't get the ball downfield and leaves defenders hanging around the line of scrimmage to tee off on him.

Either way, it ain't good. Coming into the game, all the Redskins had on offense was Portis. Leaving Pittsburgh, they didn't even have that.

It's possible to learn about the Redskins by looking at the Steelers, who are sort of the anti-Redskins model of how to build and sustain a team. Every offseason, the Redskins scrap the latest plan and start another. The Pittsburgh franchise is the epitome of stability, from Bill Cowher's 13-year run as coach to Bettis's nine years of service. The Steelers and Bettis, rather than divorce one another, remarried in the offseason. And when starter Duce Staley suffered an injury several weeks ago, Cowher called on the Bus to resume his old role. All Bettis has done since then is rush for 100 yards or more four times in four games, and carry at least 29 times in each game. All the Bus has done is take the pressure off rookie quarterback sensation Ben Roethlisberger, control the clock, keep the Steelers' defense rested and demonstrate to everybody in Pittsburgh's locker room the value of professionalism and team-first thinking.

Bettis's 47th 100-yard rushing game with the team tied him with Franco Harris for most in Steelers history. "Franco Harris," Bettis said, "is definitely the benchmark. This is one of the biggest accomplishments of my career. He is truly a living legend."

Bettis, keep in mind, has rushed for more yards than Harris. Bettis is the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history, and he didn't get those yards or the nickname the Bus by dancing around tacklers; he got them by rumbling. Bettis has more miles on him than a 1981 Volvo. But he's got as much football sense as half the coaches in the NFL. He says he "never, not ever" thought at 32 he was too old to carry the load this season. "I thought briefly, probably because of 'let-me-show-'em' pride, about going someplace else," Bettis said. "But I'm comfortable with my place. I know what I can do. And I know Bill [Cowher] and [Steelers owner] Dan Rooney know what I can do. And it's not like they brought me back here as a charity case. They asked me to change my role for the team, and I did that. I embraced it and I'll do whatever I can to help Duce. But I didn't forget how to run over the last eight months."

Boy, don't the Redskins need what the Steelers have in Bettis: a veteran who is running like a player eight years younger while setting an example only a player of his stature can. Nobody in the Steelers camp can say no to anything because Bettis has set the bar for this season's mission.

It's not that Portis is doing anything wrong. In fact, he volunteered after the game: "I would think it's still my job. But if not, I'll be backing Ladell up." And when reminded he just didn't have these kinds of days with the Broncos, Portis said, "I've got to find a way to be a key player in this system, the same way I was in that one."

But Portis is lost and the team around him is wandering through the wilderness as well. Sunday marked another week of failing to reach 20 points, another fine defensive performance wasted, another week of losing to a better team, led by a player of consequence streaking in a direction the Washington Redskins can only imagine with great envy.

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