An NFL offense, especially a Joe Gibbs offense, is only as good as the heart of its tailback and the confidence of its quarterback.
Before yesterday's game against the Giants, the Redskins had plenty of questions about both Clinton Portis and Patrick Ramsey. Now, after 148 rugged yards by Portis and a 19-for-22 game by Ramsey, fewer questions haunt an offense that entered the day with a chance to be the team's most embarrassing since 1935. Now hope, and even a sense of pride, may return.
Clinton Portis rumbles into the end zone with his second touchdown of the day, on a four-yard pass from Patrick Ramsey that gave the Redskins a 14-0 lead in the 2nd quarter. He also rushed for a score.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
As soon as this 31-7 victory ended, defensive back Shawn Springs dashed on the field to wrap a mock heavyweight championship boxing belt around Portis's waist after his 31 bruising carries, 3 pass receptions and 2 touchdowns.
"That belt, somehow it always seems to come out when Clinton is really ballin'," laughed linebacker Marcus Washington.
Last season, when he was in Denver, the Broncos beat Kansas City and Portis outgained the Chiefs' star, Priest Holmes. The gaudy belt made its debut. Now, the title trinket has made its first Redskins appearance.
"People were saying that Tiki Barber is the best running back," Portis said after outgaining the Giants runner by 110 yards at FedEx Field. "I think I'm the best back in the NFL. When we get rolling, I'm going to prove to be worth everything. . . .
"Last year, I pulled out the belt in Kansas City. Now, it's going back in retirement."
How quickly things can change. Just a week ago, Portis carried the ball six times. Rumors flew that the star back, for whom the Redskins traded cornerback Champ Bailey, was in Gibbs's doghouse for not running with complete abandon. Gibbs denied any problem. Still, does a content coach give just six carries to a back with a $50.5 million contract? No way. Consciously or by accident, Gibbs sent a clear message that Portis was so unimpressive at times that he could be forgotten for the entire second half of a close game against the once-beaten Steelers. For this Washington gave up a perennial Pro Bowl defensive back?
At a midweek team meeting, Gibbs made his intentions clear. "Our identity is running the ball and running the ball well," he said. Portis responded with cutbacks worthy of Earnest Byner and risky hell-bent spins worthy of Larry Brown. By game's end, he had 1,093 yards for the season, a pace of 1,457 that is only slightly behind his Denver totals of 1,507 and 1,591.
"Clinton's close," said Gibbs, who knows how much pride offensive lines and their tailbacks take in every hard-won yard.
"We finally went out and gave the defense what it wanted -- 21 points," said Portis, after the Redskins surpassed their previous pathetic season high of 18 points before halftime, thanks to vintage, intimidating, time-eating, Gibbs drives of 93 and 91 yards. "Now we know we can do it. This offense can produce week in and week out, pounding away, then hitting with a play-action [pass] here."
On days when Portis, and an offensive line bolstered by the return of guard Randy Thomas, can be this effective, then Ramsey can also show the gradual progress that he's making. In his first two starts after replacing Mark Brunell, Ramsey was kept on a six-inch leash on the road in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh so those elite teams wouldn't demoralize or dismember him.
Against the disintegrating Giants, Ramsey was finally allowed a full foot of rope. And he didn't hang himself. Almost none of his completions for 174 yards traveled more than 10 yards downfield. But Ramsey threw for three touchdowns and had a fourth scoring pass called back. Just as important to Gibbs, he threw no interceptions. By game's end, Ramsey's quarterback rating for the season had actually climbed above that of the dismal Brunell. For the Redskins' offense, such distinctions count as milestones.
"It may have been the best I've felt in the pocket as a Redskin," said Ramsey, who may have a future in stand-up comedy. His comfort level in the pocket with Steve Spurrier was akin to a man standing under a collapsing bridge.