Injuries, New Scheme Painful for Portis

Clinton Portis
Clinton Portis is on pace for his worst season as a professional and he has struggled with injuries this year. (Joel Richardson - The Washington Post)

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By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 12, 2006

Somehow, a leg always is tucked awkwardly behind his back as the bodies fall to the ground. Inevitably, the helmet of a tackler cracks into his ankle. Without fail, someone at the bottom of the pile lands a few shots on his shoulder or knee.

It has been that kind of season for Washington Redskins tailback Clinton Portis. The durable and diminutive runner suffered a partially dislocated shoulder on the eighth play of the exhibition season and has not been healthy since. He has gutted his way through games, but been forced to sit out for considerable sequences each contest as the shoulder, knee and ankle injuries mount. The player most central to the fortunes of Washington's offense -- if not to the entire team -- has been cast in a more complementary role in 2006, suffering through an unproductive first half while the Redskins limped to a 3-5 record.

Portis, 25, feels old beyond his years entering today's game in Philadelphia, with four seasons of bumps and bruises spanning his 5-foot-11, 205-pound frame. He has rushed 25 times or more in just one game this year and is nowhere near last season's franchise-record pace of 1,516 yards. Portis has yet to find his niche in new associate head coach Al Saunders's offense, with the hard-nosed running game that the Redskins rode to the postseason in 2005 no longer in vogue.

The expectation was that Saunders's scheme would maximize Portis's multifaceted abilities, much like it enabled tailbacks such as Priest Holmes and Marshall Faulk to shred defenses on the ground and in pass routes when he ran the offenses of other teams. But so far this season, no one on the Redskins is satisfied with the running game.

How much more Portis will be able to contribute in the final eight games is uncertain.

"If I'm at the bottom of the pile and my ankle's back here and my leg's twisted and somebody else dives on my head just from being a [jerk], it's tough when you got that going on," Portis said. "You're trying to protect [preexisting injuries] and make sure somebody don't grab your ankle, and they shoot at your knees, you know what I'm saying?

"It's just protecting yourself and coming out healthy after Sunday and still finding a way to walk and get out there and come to practice. And one day I'm going to heal up eventually, and it's going to be on."

Portis is on pace for a career-low 1,067 yards, and is averaging just 4.1 yards and 17 carries per game. He has just one 100-yard game -- he had nine in 2005, including five in row to close the regular season -- and ranks 23rd in the NFL in rushing with 498 rushing yards. It's as if all his worst fears in those maddening hours after being carted off the field in the preseason opener at Cincinnati have come true, with opponents targeting his vulnerabilities and his body often unable to withstand the blows.

Portis knows some of this was inevitable. He takes on much bulkier foes every week, blocking with abandon and exuding an aggressive streak (he hurt his shoulder making a punishing tackle on an interception return). His workload alone was foreboding: after averaging 282 carries a year his first two seasons in Denver, Portis ran a total of 695 times in 2004 and 2005 with Washington, the third-heaviest workload for a back in the NFL in that span.

"Society don't look at it like that," Portis said. "Everybody else says, 'He's just not the same back.' They don't look at the wear and tear over the last two years when I've been asked to carry the load I've been asked to carry, even when I don't have the ball. Those be the most physical times in blocking, so I just throw my body around. I'm going to throw it around as long as I can, and when I can't throw it around no more, you'll know."

Redskins fans accustomed to seeing Portis dominate drives, churning for three or four straights runs, softening a defense, have been deprived of the sight this season. Portis has thrived in the first quarter throughout his career, but is averaging a paltry 2.8 yards per carry in the first quarter in 2006. Portis has just 17 rushes for 39 yards combined in the second half of the last three contests. Nearly 20 percent of Portis's runs this season have been for no gain or negative yardage.

Saunders envisioned none of this when he agreed to take over Coach Joe Gibbs's offense in January. Portis would be a game-changer who could be deployed in the flat to catch short passes and elude opponents. He also would establish the physical tone for the offense on the ground. But plays Saunders devised with Portis in mind have had to go to other players.


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