By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 9, 2005
Clinton Portis is most at ease lounging on the beach, making acquaintances at the Playboy Mansion or chilling in the VIP room at some swank South Beach club when he's not toiling at Redskins Park. He's always conspicuous during his excursions -- donning a fur coat or pink Capri pants -- with huge diamond studs in his ears, soaking up the life of a young, wealthy, single professional athlete.
So when the Pro Bowl running back says his swagger is back, it's hard not to concur. When he offers up -- twice, unsolicited -- that he "went and kicked it with Austin Powers in the offseason, got me some mojo from over there in England, so I'm ready," one is naturally inclined to believe him, fictitious character and all. Even close friend and teammate Santana Moss is not quite sure what to make of Portis's proclamations -- "Half the time I don't know what he's talking about," the wide receiver said. "I can't ever translate something for him" -- but won't rule anything out.
With Portis, 24, no scenario is too outlandish, but now, in his second season in Washington, he says there are limits. Redskins players believe he has become a better teammate, more comfortable with them, sharing that outsized personality in the locker room, on the field and away from football in his quest to become more of a leader. Unlike past years, Portis, who was acquired from Denver for star cornerback Champ Bailey in 2004, was fully involved in Washington's offseason training program, resisting the urge to rejoin the jet-setters while the Redskins trained, and spending months on end around placid Ashburn instead.
"It's just maturity," Portis said. "It comes with age. I've always been a leader on the field, but as a spokesman or voice of the team, I always was doing my own thing. As a spokesman for this team, I just had to take on a different role."
Although the 1,315 yards he produced in 2004 would satisfy many NFL runners, the total disappointed Portis, who failed to post a third straight 1,500-yard season, scored only five rushing touchdowns, and finished with career lows in most major categories. "Everything wasn't as peaches and cream as it was where he left [Denver]," said Moss, his college teammate at Miami. "I'm pretty sure just having that under his belt now he knows what to expect."
This season Portis is intent on slashing through defenses as easily as he did in two years with Denver, surpassing 1,500 yards again and helping the Redskins improve on their 6-10 record. Portis added 18 pounds of muscle to his 5-11 frame -- he says he is now 223 pounds -- and has a healthy and refortified offensive line in front of him. The coaches have tailored the running game to him, with more stretch plays and outside runs in which his explosiveness and creativity can flourish. Portis hopes it all results in a trip to his second Pro Bowl (which, by the way, includes a free trip to Hawaii in February).
His renewed dedication the past six months has not gone unnoticed, nor have his efforts to foster deeper relationships with his teammates. "I see him being more open to guys," right guard Randy Thomas said. "He was a little quiet his first year. Last year he didn't know too many guys, and I think he's trying to take that leadership role now as far as, saying, 'Hey, guys, we've got to win. Let's do this. Hey, line, block this, block that.' And we need that. Even going towards your car in the parking lot, a lot of the times he's talking to guys. It's just a different vibe with him this year."
Running backs coach Earnest Byner noted the change before the second preseason game, when Portis uncharacteristically jumped in a huddle he was not even participating in and offered encouragement to his teammates. "He's more vocal now," left tackle Chris Samuels said. "Right before we go out and stretch, before the game, he speaks up and kind of fires guys up." Portis has been more attentive in meetings, as well, more knowledgeable about the playbook, more willing to volunteer answers to Byner's questions.
"You kind of look at him as a flair and flash type of guy," Byner said. "But he's sharp, and he's become more and more detail-oriented."
Byner has relished having Portis around every day, reinforcing certain principles and cajoling him into doing additional work. The sheer pounding of carrying the ball 343 times last season -- 53 more than ever before -- had exhausted him. "By Week 5, I was wore out," Portis said. There is likely to be more work for backup Ladell Betts now, something Portis says he is fine with, and the short-yardage duties also could be split. Still, the Redskins expect Portis to be a workhorse.
"One of the things I had been more concerned with was his conditioning," Byner said. "We want to make sure he's in the right condition, so we've been doing extra running and stuff like that. I think maturation is what I've seen out of Clinton from last year to this year, a realization of what is needed from him, especially in this offseason."
But Portis is still the same guy who says exactly what he feels -- offering blunt critiques of the offense on more than one occasion; defending friend and beleaguered teammate Sean Taylor throughout his troubled offseason -- and accepts the consequences. "I don't mean anybody no harm," Portis said. "I'm just going to speak my mind, good or bad."
And sometimes that extends to spinning a bit of fiction. There was no jaunt to London -- Portis said he was just joking about the Austin Powers movies -- but he still yearns to globetrot and enjoy the spoils of his labor. A downsized John Riggins for the second Joe Gibbs era, he readily admits that the party monster still lurks within. Only now, he has placed his profession before his nighttime pursuits.
"Out there I'm spending money, and here I'm making money," Portis said. "So it wasn't that hard of a decision. I'm 24 years old, and that's going to be in me for a long time, but when it comes time to take care of business, I'm more business-oriented now, and I put that other stuff off to another time of the year."