By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 2, 2007
When training camp began Friday, tailback Clinton Portis was glowing. His surgically repaired shoulder and hand were pain-free, and Portis believed an offseason bout of right knee tendinitis was finally behind him. "I feel great. I'm excited. I feel healthy," Portis said, eager to leave his lost 2006 season behind.
But less than a week later, questions about his health have surfaced. Portis, 25, missed a second straight day of practice yesterday and will continue to strengthen and have treatment on his swollen knee, likely remaining on the sideline until at least next week. Portis, whose tendinitis was diagnosed in May, was limited to eight games last season. He suffered a partial dislocation of his shoulder on the opening series of the preseason and later broke his hand. He never resembled the runner who set a franchise record with 1,516 yards in 2005.
Backup Ladell Betts emerged as a competent feature back, providing security at the position and challenging Portis to prove he is still among the NFL's top runners this season. Given Portis's relatively slight frame by NFL standards (a generous 5 feet 11, 223 pounds), his lengthy layoff and his recent injury history, that might become a difficult task. The Redskins are committed to getting Portis fit by the start of the regular season, and they believe that if handled properly, the recurrence of tendinitis will not be an ongoing concern. The team is viewing his condition as a minor malady, but in a collision sport and at a position that puts enormous strain on the knees, it clearly warrants monitoring.
"Clinton's got a little soreness in his knee, the one he had patellar tendinitis in," said Bubba Tyer, Washington's director of sports medicine. "We're going to modify his workouts some and concentrate a little more on strengthening work and conditioning work without the trauma of practice -- cutting and turning. He felt a little discomfort in the cutting and turning and pivoting on his leg, so we'll get it a little bit stronger and then we'll get him back out there."
Tyer is keeping a close eye on wide receiver Santana Moss, too. Moss's workload was curtailed yesterday because of a recurrence of discomfort in his groin. Moss was hampered by hamstring problems last season and developed a hip flexor strain this offseason. According to Tyer, the groin issue returned this week as a result of compensating for the issues with his hip. Moss set a franchise record for receiving yardage in 2005 and his health is important to the offense.
Portis, never a huge proponent of preseason activities, brought a renewed enthusiasm to training camp, one the coaches hope will not wane as his time on the sideline increases. He had said he would complete any preseason assignment sent his way. For as good as Portis felt, however, playing basketball, running sprints and passing running tests, Tyer said the athletic trainers anticipated some minor setbacks as Portis's activity increased. He is all but certain to miss Saturday's scrimmage in Baltimore.
"As much as he thought he was ready to do, it's two-a-days and it's football," Tyer said. "And it's a lot more cutting."
Coach Joe Gibbs said the team will continue to err on the side of caution with Portis -- "We're just trying to do the best job we can with that thing," he said -- and running backs coach Earnest Byner aims to keep Portis in good spirits. "A lot of the healing process is mental," Byner said. "We want to make sure he stays upbeat, too, and stays emotionally challenged and feels good about himself."
Byner's focus must also shift to the other more established running backs -- Betts, return specialist Rock Cartwright and journeyman Derrick Blaylock. Betts was rewarded with a five-year contract extension for his performance last season, Cartwright has produced in spurts (although, as with Betts, fumbles are an issue) and Blaylock thrived in the Redskins' offensive system when he was with associate head coach-offense Al Saunders in Kansas City.
When Portis injured his shoulder last August, the Redskins gave up two valuable draft picks to land reserve tailback T.J. Duckett, who was being shopped around the NFL at the time. Duckett spent all season on the roster but was rarely used, and rather than get caught in that position again the Redskins acted quickly this offseason. Once Portis's knee problems surfaced, the team evaluated Blaylock during a May rookie camp, then signed him to a veteran-minimum deal ($595,000).
Portis is by far the most distinguished of the team's running backs, but the Redskins believe they have plenty of depth.
"Anytime a guy gets injured, you are concerned," Byner said. "But the reality is you have to have the other guys prepared and being ready to step in, and one thing we do have is guys very well capable of stepping in and can take the load off. And that's why Clinton can become healthy, and that's why he can take that time off, because we've got guys ready to take up the slack."
Redskins Notes: Linebacker Marcus Washington, recovering from hip surgery, has been rested in several recent practices, including yesterday morning, but was back for the evening session. Guard Randy Thomas (knee) took part in some one-on-one drills but is unlikely to practice fully until next week. . . . Rookie free agent Stephon Heyer continued to take reps with the first-team offensive line as starting left tackle Chris Samuels is out a month with a knee sprain. Offensive lineman Todd Wade, trying to switch from tackle to guard, has been working with the first and second teams, while veterans Jason Fabini and Will Whitticker alternate time at guard with the first team as well. . . .
Team management received sub-par internal scouting reports on free agent end Simeon Rice, sources said, and have made no contact with the former Pro Bowler. Nor are they expected to. Management did instruct scouts and coaches to compile offseason reports on defensive end Michael Strahan over the winter, however. Strahan is threatening to retire and is locked in a contract impasse with the New York Giants. Owner Daniel Snyder likes Strahan after watching him battle his team in the NFC East, team sources have said, and should Strahan become available, the Redskins could become a suitor. The Giants would likely be reluctant to trade him within the division, and several teams are monitoring his situation closely.