Zeroed In on New Season
Running Back Portis Eager to Put A Disastrous 2006 Behind Him

By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 28, 2007

There is nothing about 2006, the year in which he had his worst season and team expectations rose and plummeted, about which Clinton Portis cares to reminisce. Wearing a gray T-shirt, shorts, flip-flops and a beige towel around his neck, Portis was ever flamboyant, centering his first comments on the future, on vowing to avoid controversy off the football field while striving to again be relevant on it, as the Washington Redskins opened training camp yesterday.

The man legendarily known for hating practice -- Portis said yesterday if given his way, he would turn the preseason into a "resort" to ensure he would be healthy for the season -- said he would temper those sentiments, caring no longer to be what he called an "outcast" among his teammates. Apparently wounded by the furious public reaction to his cavalier comment about dogfighting nearly two months ago when the allegations surrounding Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick arose, Portis said he would restrict his public comments to only himself.

"I got blasted for something that didn't have anything to do with me," Portis said. "I'm going to keep Clinton Portis out of trouble. I'm going to keep Clinton Portis focused. I'm going to keep Clinton Portis on the top of his game. Outside of that, you can't ask me about the next man. I don't know how anybody feels. I don't know how anybody's thinking. I don't know what anyone else is going through. The only thing I know is what's going on in Clinton Portis's life."

But the most revelatory element of Portis's far-ranging, 21-minute interview was his belief that his injuries -- he said he has recovered completely from shoulder, hand and knee injuries suffered last season and during organized team activities -- were the result of a dangerous combination: a lack of attitude on his part and an intense Redskins practice and cultural regimen that left him drained of his football spirit.

"I think I was just tired. When I was in Denver, it was different in the offseason. When that last game hit zero-zero, you had a speech the next day and then you were gone until the mandatory camp before the season. Practice was easy, and we were fresh," Portis said. "When I became a Washington Redskin, everything was different. Football became a year-round event. You finish in January, and in March, you're back. The demands were different. . . . It was always football, football, football and I was burnt out."

Portis would prefer to leave last season chained to the bottom of a lake. He was injured on the first series of the first preseason game, separating his shoulder while making a tackle after a Mark Brunell interception, and was not right all season.

That game and injury caused Portis to rage that, for star players, preseason did not contain enough reward for the risk of injury. He missed the rest of the preseason and, like the Redskins, played unevenly for the first two months of the regular season.

When he did play, Portis had his moments -- a 74-yard catch-and-run at Houston that provided the catalyst for the first victory, and a 112-yard effort the next week in a home win against Jacksonville -- but ultimately 2006 was his worst. He began the year getting knocked out of a game making a tackle and four months later in Philadelphia his season ended when Eagles safety Brian Dawkins tackled him, breaking Portis's hand early in a 27-3 loss. After frustration, just 523 yards and one 100-yard game, Portis was placed on injured reserve days later and his season was over.

In between, Portis felt out of sync with new associate head coach-offense Al Saunders, who seemed to prefer to use Portis in more stretch and fewer power formations. And Saunders chafed at Portis's apparent freedom to remove himself from games when he felt winded.

Worse, when Portis fell, the Redskins' running game blossomed with Ladell Betts, who rushed for 1,154 yards, including five consecutive 100-yard games. Saunders allowed Betts to run inside -- a choice Portis felt was unavailable to him -- and Portis said in a January interview after the season that he and Saunders had "no relationship." Even Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, Portis's greatest benefactor on the Redskins, said during the offseason that Portis would face real competition from Betts, a position he has since modified.

"Clinton is the starter and Ladell has a very important role," Gibbs said. "It's one of the strengths of our football team. I wish we were like that at every position."

This year, Portis said he has no issue with Saunders, and because they've been sharing the workload for years, he said he and Betts can be a dangerous tandem without incident.

"We settled our differences. We never really sat down and said what each other had to say, I just have to buy into his system," Portis said of Saunders. "If he says, 'I need you to run through that brick wall' . . . I'm going to find a way to get as close as I can and dive over the top of that brick wall and tell him I made it over. I didn't do it the way you asked me to do it, but I got there."

Portis said the result of last year is a desire to prove he is still an elite player.

"I think everybody's memory is short term and its always what have you done for me lately," he said. "And lately, I haven't done anything. So everything in my past is forgotten.

"Three out of my five years I played with a chip on my shoulder. When I finally got comfortable, when I felt that I had arrived and was at the top of my platform, in the eye of being a superstar, that I got relaxed. I relaxed and ended up getting hurt and then all of a sudden everything you've done is forgotten about. So right now, I'm stepping out like a rookie. I have to prove to the world that I'm still the same dangerous 2-6 that set the examples of the NFL."

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