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Defiantly Old School

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, January 2, 2006

PHILADELPHIA

As Joe Gibbs walked past the Redskins' bench last week at FedEx Field, running back Clinton Portis started screaming at his Hall of Fame coach. "It's 'gut' and 'power.' Do you want to win?" yelled Portis, demanding the up-the-middle, punch-in-the-nose plays he loves to run.

"Yeah, I want to win the game" said the surprised Gibbs, not accustomed to being asked by his players if he prefers to win.

"Then it's 'gut' and 'power,' " repeated the 5-foot-10, 212-pound Portis, who doesn't look like nature intended that he be used as a human battering ram.

"Okay, I got it," said Gibbs, who did as he was told.

For the last five weeks, the Redskins have been using guts and power, returning to the kind of intimidating, old-school football that defined the first Gibbs era. At the center of that transformation has been Portis, who may not look like massive John Riggins, but has pounded opponents to pulp in five straight victories that have put the Redskins back in the playoffs.

On Sunday, Gibbs chuckled at that memory of Portis demanding more of the bludgeoning runs that often defined Gibbs's teams between 1981 and 1992. Here at Lincoln Financial Field, Gibbs watched in admiration as Portis once again "powered" and "gutted" his way to 112 yards and two scores against the Eagles, including the game-deciding, 22-yard, fourth-quarter scoring run that put the Redskins ahead 24-20 and ignited an eventual 31-20 win. In the process of playing hero, Portis broke the all-time Redskins rushing record with 1,516 yards for the season, including 573 yards in 131 carries in those last five vital games.

Portis's final scoring run, on a play that began horribly but finished in the end zone, was emblematic of a Redskins game that might easily have been lost to a determined Philadelphia team that enjoyed its opportunity to play spoiler. Asked how the played was designed, Portis grinned and said: "I think that play was designed for a two-yard loss. But I was fortunate. With the spin move, [the cornerback] disappeared, and all I saw was daylight. When I got close to the goal line, I had to dive, because otherwise I was going out of bounds."

As he has done so many times this season, Portis combined raw speed, spinning agility and an acrobatic gift that allows him to gain an extra yard or two with reckless last-second leaps or twists. Above all, however, Portis brought two qualities to the Redskins that they desperately need -- passion and toughness.

"What's best about Clinton is his heart. He's a competitor from the word go," Gibbs said. "I don't know of another running back that plays the way he does when he doesn't have the ball under his arm. He's very physical. He'll pass protect and he'll try to hunt people down to get blocks for his buddies. He's very, very aggressive."

"With all the punishment that I take in a game -- they get you dirty at the bottom of the pile -- I try to return the favor," Portis said. "When I don't have the ball, I've got my chance to do the same to them."

"It's amazing the hits that Clinton and [wide receiver] Santana Moss lay on people," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "They aren't big guys, but they just lay people out. You see a lot of backs and receivers, when it's not their play, they'll give a [weak] effort. Clinton and Santana are going to put a Riddell [helmet] on somebody."

The Redskins defense under Gregg Williams has been a physically intimidating unit for two years. Now, since a team meeting after the Oakland defeat, the Washington offense has decided to run the ball far more often than it passes. That determination has, ironically, opened up chances for Moss to get open deep, as he did for a 54-yard gain against the Eagles. With 83 yards on four catches, Moss also set a Washington record, amassing more yards than any Redskins receiver in history. However, in fairness, it should be noted that Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell set the previous mark in just 14 games, not the current 16. Moss has speed and elusiveness that is comparable to Mitchell, but not quite the same strength in breaking multiple tackles. Even Mitchell, however, didn't have the uncanny gift for judging the flight of long bombs that defines Moss.

As the Redskins left the locker room, someone said to Portis, "See you next week" in the playoffs in Tampa. Moss, walking two steps behind Portis, heard the comment and said, "Thanks to you."

Many Redskins share in the resurrection of this season. The Washington defense, so often frustrated in its attempts to generate turnovers, came up with four fumble recoveries and two interceptions against the self-destructive Eagles. But it is still Portis, and the inspiration he provides his huge offensive linemen, that has changed the Redskins' identity for the better.

"There are lots of great athletes in this league, but you don't see a lot of passion from many of them," tackle Jon Jansen said. "Passion is what makes Clinton so special. He is a very confident person. Last year, everybody said he was a 'system back' in Denver. That probably motivated him even more."

Now, with his third 1,500-yard season in four years in the NFL, Portis may start to get his due as a back who improves and adapts. In Denver, he frequently ran outside, liked "stretch" plays and was thought to be the statistical product of a great line. In Washington, however, Portis has adapted and grown. In particular, Portis decided to learn from assistant coach Earnest Byner, rather than resist him.

"Once I let myself be coached and stopped feeling like I knew everything, I got better," Portis said. "I let E.B. be a coach."

Now, as well as being outspoken and colorful, Portis is also a team leader. "When linemen see a back who plays that hard, they say, 'If that guy is that tough, I'll block for him,' " Gibbs said. "The first thing we saw when we studied his films in Denver is that he likes to bust back inside on runs. Even with the crease plays [designed to go back outside], he'd slam back inside."

On a day when quarterback Mark Brunell was clearly feeling the effects of a knee injury he suffered last week against the Giants and completed just 9 of 25 passes, the Redskins' playoff hopes were placed squarely on Portis's back. That back was almost wrenched out of socket on one questionable neck-high, hogtie tackle by the Eagles that sent Portis to the bench in pain. "They put the rules in for a reason. Are they going to call them?" Portis said. "If people keep twisting me up . . . I'm going to get up and start kicking people."

Not really. But in that flash of anger and pride, you see the true Portis -- tough and passionate.

Five weeks ago, the Redskins needed a rallying point, a spark that could start a fire. It turned out to be Portis, who has ripped off rushing totals of 136, 105, 112, 108 and now 112 yards. Actually, his best game of the season -- 144 yards on 23 carries -- came against Tampa Bay in a 36-35 loss. Now, the Redskins and Portis will get a rematch of that loss.

Leading them will be the player who, in time, may be regarded as the finest running back in Redskins history. More work still needs to be done for such a distinction. Others have led Washington teams to world titles and Super Bowls. Since 1969, the Redskins have had Riggins, Larry Brown, Stephen Davis, Terry Allen, Earnest Byner and George Rogers, all of whom ran for more than 1,200 yards in a season. In an earlier time, there were Andy Farkas and Cliff Battles.

In just two seasons, Portis has now taken his place with them, whether carrying the ball, catching it, passing it or, perhaps as important, unleashing blocks or showing his passion. At halftime of this Eagles game, with the Redskins trailing by a touchdown, many words were said. Some came from Portis.

"We told each other that we were going to be cleaning out our lockers tomorrow if we didn't play better," Portis said. "I wasn't ready to clean out mine."

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