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.
"In the opening game against Minnesota there were a couple of screens to [backup] Ladell [Betts] and he's running untouched down the sidelines, and if that was Clinton he might have gone all the way in for the score," Saunders said. "That's the difference right there. Clinton's production would have been astronomical at this point if he had the chance to do it in the games, but he's been out a lot, whether through injury or fatigue or whatever. Hopefully, he'll be in there more in the next eight games."
Portis and Gibbs have a longstanding agreement that should Portis get winded or hurt in a game, he can head to the sideline for a replacement. With Portis missing virtually all of the preseason and most practices in the regular season, getting his legs and conditioning in peak game shape has taken time.
"It's kind of been one thing after another from an injury standpoint, everything from his shoulder to his leg," Gibbs said. "But still I don't know of anyone more aggressive."
The frequency of Portis's absences has made it impossible for Saunders to get him in a rhythm or get him the ball 30 times in either running or passing plays, the goal Saunders sets for his star running back each game.
"If we played 60 plays and Clinton could line up and play 60 plays, he'd be in there for 60 plays," Saunders said. "I've never been a running-back-by-committee guy. When one guy gets the load he gets all the practice time and the reps and he ends up performing at a higher level. But because Clinton has been unavailable during the week the other guys have had more opportunities to play."
Portis, who has topped 1,500 yards in three of his four seasons, is grappling with his diminished role as well. When the Redskins needed five straight wins to reach the postseason last year, they turned to him, and he responded by averaging 27 rushes for 115 yards in those victories. No one could doubt his value. For the team to flounder and his carries to dwindle is difficult for him to take.
"Late last year we knew when we got into key situations it wasn't no secret," Portis said. "We were going to come into the game and run downhill and we were going to find a way to play action and get the ball to [tight end Chris] Cooley and [wide receiver] Santana [Moss]. Right now it's just an adjustment. We're spreading the ball and you're not getting into the groove of the game constantly.
"I used to know my number was going to be called, and I go quarters without touching the ball right now. So at the same time you get frustrated, but you have to find a way through it."
Opponents have been remarking on Washington's erratic offense, which after eight games is still trying to establish its identity. "You can tell it's not what's called 'Gibbs Ball,' pulling everybody and running the running back and pounding the defense," Eagles safety Brian Dawkins said during a conference call last week. "That's not what they're doing. And I think that's going to be the solution to what's been going on there -- run the ball and control the clock."
Portis is among the more outspoken players in the game, but coaches and teammates have praised his attitude this season. In 2004, Portis skewered the Redskins' game plan against Cleveland, saying the Browns knew every play that was coming. On the first day of training camp in 2005, he said the coaches failed to cater the offense to the personnel in the previous season. He remains candid, but coaches say he has matured into a team leader.
"Clinton has some deeper desires and you know he'd like to have the ball in his hands more," running backs coach Earnest Byner said. "We're dealing with the nicks he has that have cropped up in games, and he's held on as far as his determination and his mental growth. He's been very, very good with that and he hasn't had a T.O. [Terrell Owens] reaction to any of this and I'm really proud of him for that."
Ultimately, Portis's other pursuits keep his mind off football. His devilish smile is still ever present, and his reputation as a prankster is legendary. He eagerly picks through a line of questioning like he is navigating the backfield during a game, finding the right spot to insert an innuendo or dirty joke. He is no longer donning costumes and assuming alter egos for his media sessions on Thursdays, but that has as much to do with his injuries and the club's poor record as anything else.
"With Clinton you really don't know what he's going through half the time, because he's always finding ways to make fun out of whatever is there," said Moss, one of Portis's closest friends. "One thing that stands out in my mind about Clinton is football isn't something he worries about. He knows he can do it. If he worried about football he'd work out when he has to. That's letting you know this guy knows he can go out and play football when he has to. It's not something he feels like he has to get up to do."
While he takes winning and losing seriously and plays as hard as any player on the team, Portis also partakes in the perks of being a young, single, wealthy professional athlete. He is notorious for being a ladies man, loves to turn heads with his flamboyant wardrobe and has more than enough escapes at his disposal when the pain and aggravation of his job take hold. Whether setting a rushing record or struggling to find his form, Clinton Portis enjoys being Clinton Portis.
"It's frustrating, but I'm at one with myself, I'm at peace with myself," Portis said. "I'm happy right now. I love being a part of this organization and I look at the big picture, man. This is a game and you want to win all the time, but you look at life, and my life off the field is marvelous. I enjoy it. It's peaceful. I go home with a clear mind. I'm living and I'm happy, so there's other stuff to look forward to in life."