By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 8, 2005
The way Clinton Portis tells it, after taking his first carry of the season 64 yards for a touchdown last season, the Washington Redskins' brain trust never called the play again. Coach Joe Gibbs and his staff remember it differently -- including making that call several times in the victory over Tampa Bay and throughout the season -- but when it comes to the overall effectiveness of Washington's running attack in 2004, there is little room for debate.
Portis accumulated 1,315 rushing yards, but the Redskins ranked 29th in yards per carry, lacked big plays, grasped for an identity and produced few touchdowns. Portis hardly resembled the game-breaking running back who threatened the NFL record books in his first two seasons in Denver, and the Redskins were a shell of the smash-mouth teams this staff coached to glory in its first stint.
Portis, who beefed up to 212 pounds after playing at 205 last season, said the coaches wanted him to be something he could never be -- a 250-pound sledgehammer between the tackles -- and the scheme hindered him and the offensive line. While the coaches take exception with those claims, the reality of a 6-10 season has resulted in a restructuring of the running game, and the Redskins expect to have a markedly different look when they open the season Sept. 11.
"When I look up at that trophy case I see three Super Bowl trophies there," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense. "I don't think this staff is dumb, you know what I'm saying? In the '80s, we were famous for our counter-gap blocking and power offensive football. The 'counter trey,' we called it, and we still have those plays. When we had Earnest Byner, John Riggins, George Rogers and Gerald Riggs, from tackle to tackle they were slam, bam, thank you ma'am. We made people bleed to death in there.
"Now, we've got a different kind of back, and we run the same plays, but we've added more perimeter plays. That's the biggest difference. We were here [running inside between the tackles] for 12 years, and now we're here [outside the tackles], plus all the way out here, going from sideline to sideline. We've opened it up a lot more. We're not opposed to trying new things."
Whether these changes will be enough to placate Portis -- who said the Cleveland Browns knew precisely which plays the Redskins were running after just his fourth game with the team -- remains to be seen. Of course, the Redskins showed none of those changes in their scrimmage Saturday against the Baltimore Ravens and are unlikely to tip their hand in their four preseason games. But a good portion of this offseason was spent tailoring the ground attack to his skills.
Byner, the running backs coach, grilled Alex Gibbs, who worked with Portis as the architect of Denver's running schemes and now is on Atlanta's staff. The first signing of free agency was a starting center (Casey Rabach); the team's most dynamic offensive lineman (Jon Jansen) is back after missing all of 2004 with an Achilles' tendon tear; and the technique of the entire line was overhauled to produce more outside gains. Two of Washington's six draft picks were spent on bruising runners who should create the thrust that was lacking in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
"I think it's an athletic scheme," Portis said of the changes. "I think we give the linemen a chance to use their talent. You're not putting them at a disadvantage by trying to make them be bulling over guys when that's not what they're used to. You give the running back a chance to make plays and give the quarterback and receivers a chance to make plays. We're opening up our system. Last year, we really didn't use our talent the way we should."
The coaches contend a poor passing game made running the ball almost impossible. Washington never forced opponents to respect its passing game or drop extra players into coverage, and instead teams stacked eight or more players around the line of scrimmage. With Joe Gibbs still feeling his way around the NFL, the Redskins employed an ultra-conservative offense and finished 29th in passing.
"We're not a dink-and-dunk offense," Bugel said, "and last year we probably did too much of that just to find out about our personnel."
The expectation is that having a stronger passer (Patrick Ramsey rather than Mark Brunell) and two speedy new wide receivers (Santana Moss and David Patten), along with more three- and four-receiver sets, will keep defenses from keying solely on Portis. More players will be deployed downfield. Last season, they remained in pass protection.
"If you get to where they can't drop eight guys in the box," Byner said, "and now they have to drop one of those guys that would be in the box versus that third wideout on the outside, then perhaps we'll get a little more room to run in there."
Should the passing game fail to evolve -- and last year's lows would seem difficult to duplicate -- coaches have a plan.
First of all, Portis will be stationed a few yards deeper in the backfield in most formations, players said. The additional room should allow him to gain momentum -- pure speed and elusiveness are his hallmarks -- and provide a buffer between him and the line; last season it was a challenge for Portis to run with the patience necessary for some of Washington's more intricate blocking patterns to develop. In Denver, which uses an offense with short drops and quick passes, he was used to the line creating immediate holes and having ample space to make one cutback and dart into the secondary for chunks of yards.
"This gives him a chance to not rush into the line," said offensive lineman Ray Brown, a 20-year veteran. "He's got a little more time to read the line of scrimmage."
Despite Portis's contention that the line will not be asked to bully teams this season, the blocking schemes remain physical, coaches and players said. Rather than block side-to-side, linemen must get a push and reestablish the line a yard downfield, Brown and Jansen said. Bugel is stressing the importance of new hand technique, blocking "vertically" with shoulders square whether the play is going inside or outside. Adding Rabach and Jansen to the group has Bugel giddy over its potential, but, then again, there was much hoopla about the "Dirtbags" this time a year ago. "We've got to go out there and take it to guys," tackle Chris Samuels said. "We can talk about how good we are, but we've got to work hard and be that good."
Too often last season Portis was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage. "We've got to get the running back to linebacker depth," Brown said. "So we're thinking double-team the down guy, push him back and make the linebacker make the play."
Jansen said: "This year we've got to get back to being physical. We're not a finesse football team, and we never will be. We had a scheme a few years back that wanted us to be a finesse team, and it just didn't work. If you want to win in this league you've got to be physical."
Last season, coaches gradually implemented more pitches and sweep plays to get Portis outside the tackles, and they are expected to take on more prominence this season. The Redskins also ran more stretch plays, which are designed to thin defenses by forcing them from sideline to sideline and are the hallmark of Denver's success. That transition was difficult to make in-season, but after spending the entire offseason honing them, this year they could yield bigger dividends. Byner said Washington averaged nearly five yards on its stretch plays last season; the Redskins averaged 3.7 yards per carry overall.
Byner studied the stretch extensively in the offseason and spoke to Alex Gibbs and Ivan Fears, New England's running backs coach, to determine precisely what he hoped to accomplish on specific calls. The stretch is predicated on deception, and, after speaking to the coaches, Byner was able to determine exactly what was going on with plays he saw on tape. Did the runner hit the correct hole? Were the blocks created in the right spots? Was the cutback designed to go inside or outside?
"Alex Gibbs was very, very thorough and patient about how they ran their stretch and their adjustments," Byner said. "And he said, 'E.B., if you're not going to do this full tilt, then you can't dabble in it.' There are so many adjustments that the line has to make on the move, so you've got to see it very often. . . . We're going to run a type of stretch inside and outside zone very similar to what they're running, and we're going to be proficient at it, I can tell you that. We're going to be proficient at it."
For Portis, proficiency means returning to the 1,500-yard mark, tearing off long runs and regularly reaching the end zone. "Somehow, some way, I'm going to be a 1,500-yard rusher," he said.
For Byner, it means adding hundreds of yards to the 1,765 the Redskins mustered on the ground last season -- 21st in the NFL -- and significantly improving on Washington's six rushing touchdowns -- tied for fewest in the league.
"I think we're going to be much, much better in the running game," Byner said. "Hey, 2,000 yards out of this backfield -- 2,200 yards out this backfield -- is what I told the guys I'm looking for."