By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, August 2, 2005
The thing about any training camp, especially the first few days, is almost every assessment is absurdly optimistic, which is why it was so refreshing to listen to Clinton Portis on the first day of Redskins training camp yesterday.
An NFL camp isn't the place you expect to find a realist, but Portis was exactly that on the first day. On the possibility of Sean Taylor's trial date getting moved, Portis said, "They put Michael Jackson's trial back, and he ain't got a concert any time soon." On the unhappiness that led to Laveranues Coles being shown the door, he said, "He was just upset he wasn't used the way he thought he would be."
Portis will never be the official voice of the Washington Redskins, but as camp kicks off, he's the voice we probably ought to pay close attention to, if for no other reason than he is quite happy to, as the kids say, keep it real.
The Redskins, like any team in the league, have plenty of issues worth examining, whether we're talking about how Gregg Williams and his defensive coaches plan to replace Fred Smoot and Antonio Pierce or how soon rookie quarterback Jason Campbell will be able to contribute.
But the No. 1 topic for discussion is and should be: Have the Redskins fixed the offense? That's where we start, updating the offense by, oh, 18 or 19 years. "A year ago," Portis said, "we found out it didn't work."
So what now? "We're doing different stuff. We tried to be a power team and bully over people. . . . We've got big guys but they're athletic," he said, speaking of the group in general, but Randy Thomas and Chris Samuels specifically. "I think it's an athletic team . . . now, we're not putting them at a disadvantage."
Portis talked about the failure to get Coles deep: "We had one of the fastest guys in the league, and we didn't run a lot of go-routes."
He talked about the mistake of trying to force the issue of power football with players not built for that: "You have myself at 205 pounds, trying to be Jamal Lewis," the Ravens' running back who weighs 245 pounds. "So I think now our scheme suits our offense."
Don't think for a second Portis was being an egomaniac; he wasn't. He simply answered questions, candidly, about what it is the Redskins have to do differently this year, starting this week. If you want sugar and spice, Portis ain't your guy. He'll tell you flat-out that he was sure the old offense would work a year ago, how he kept thinking, "This is the game. This is the game it's gonna work." But it never was the game.
A season of 14 great weeks of defense was wasted for the most part because Joe Gibbs, one of the great innovators in NFL history, didn't figure out in time how to best utilize Portis, didn't figure out in time how to stretch the field. Asked what plays he would like to run, Portis said: "Four go routes and let me run the draw. . . . That's what I'm looking for."
Impractical, but honest. And maybe the candor will force the changes necessary.
That's not what Portis was expecting when he walked through the door.
But on his very first carry of the year he bolted for a touchdown. "You couldn't have told me after that day, I wasn't going to get 2,000 yards. " Portis paused and said, but "we didn't run that play again all season."
Portis isn't the only one talking about changing the offense, opening it up, improving it. It might have been the most frequently broached subject yesterday for anybody who has anything to do with offense. Jon Jansen, back on the offensive line after missing last season, talked about the changes being more subtle.
"I don't know that there's a lot people will notice," he said. "Well, the shotgun is obvious. But we're talking about a lot of things that you won't be able to pinpoint just from watching and say, 'That's different.' I think we're talking about things that will make us more fluid, less rigid . . . things that will enable us to put together drives where we'll say, 'Now that looks like a football team.' "
But to do that, it's going to take serious work.
"Three new starting receivers, a new center and a new fullback," Portis said. "There's a learning curve. . . . But we're going to get it."
And while that might be the most burning issue for folks looking in, there are others. Patrick Ramsey talked about entering camp as the starter, but said the word "entrenched" is too strong. So does that mean Gibbs has Ramsey on a short leash and will be looking to return to the man he spent so much money to acquire, Mark Brunell?
"It's a year for me to come and play," Ramsey said. And ain't that the truth?
There's the issue of replacing Pierce, which could be more difficult than replacing Smoot because, outside of Arrington, the Redskins have so many unproven linebackers. To lose Pierce to the Giants over what amounted to not a lot of money seems ill-advised, particularly for a team that in recent years has thrown huge dollars at players not worth the trouble. But maybe Williams and the defensive coaches, who were so good in preparing backups last season, have an encore in them. Maybe Warrick Holdman is going to be this season's emerging linebacker.
There's the issue of special teams, which should be better because the team drafted and signed people with just that in mind.
And there might be a measure of comfort in having so little hype as camp begins. Okay, the Sean Taylor thing is an issue, but relatively speaking, it's not like what the Eagles are dealing with regarding T.O. It's not like the Packers having to wonder how Brett Favre and receiver Javon Walker are going to get along. It's not like having Ricky Williams wander back in after a year of wandering the world.
Taylor, as these things go, is a minor distraction now. Football teams aren't ad agencies. Players don't pay nearly as much attention to these mini-dramas as people like to think.
"I think they know when I'm here [that] I'm here 100 percent," said Taylor, which was probably nice for the coaches to hear. "I'm glad my teammates were so welcoming."
Probably, the first day was decent enough as camp goes. No questions were answered, but they rarely are so early in August. And at least one realist set a tone right away. Things need to get better, and the sooner the team goes about the business of dealing with that, the sooner the Redskins can get to a legitimately rosy forecast.