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Talk Gets Under This Skin

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Clinton Portis celebrated his 26th birthday on the rooftop of the Kennedy Center on Saturday night. Mingling with the dignitaries were Ray Lewis and some of Portis's friends from the Ravens. "Nice, real nice," Portis said. The evening was an opulent gala befitting one of pro football's preeminent running backs, which is how Portis still sees himself.

But does anyone besides his immediate family feel the same way? The more he reads and hears, Portis wonders himself.

"What I know and people think are so different," he said outside the Redskins' locker room in Ashburn on Monday. "I get hurt one time in my whole career by going out and trying to sacrifice" my body.

"Somebody else in this same position, going through the same thing, they glorify the guy. 'This guy played hurt. He comes back. He go down again.' It's a sob story. But being that it's me -- I don't know what they got against me. I don't know if it's personal. I don't know if they want to see me fail."

He paused and shook his head in disgust: "My feeling is, 'What the [expletive] do I got to prove to you?' "

The camouflage is gone. For the moment, he's not hiding behind Southeast Jerome, Sheriff Gonna Getcha or any of his made-up alter egos from 2005, when he was last healthy. No humor mask. Portis hears the chatter about whether he is still the combustible back that has rushed for 6,453 yards and 52 touchdowns since his rookie year in 2002, and he doesn't like it.

Sports Illustrated listed its top 500 player rankings for 2007, in which Portis was deemed the 202nd most important player on an NFL roster. He was the 17th running back named, behind, among others, Frank Gore and a Buffalo rookie named Marshawn Lynch. Portis was ranked three spots ahead of Ladell Betts and 199 spots behind LaDainian Tomlinson, the NFL MVP with whom Portis said he compares statistically.

Did we mention Champ Bailey, the player traded to Denver for Portis, was No. 6? Peter King's comment: "Skins rue Bailey-for-Portis deal, big-time."

Yeah, it was one of those subjective, self-indulgent lists. But it got inside Portis's head.

"They got rookies ahead of me," he said. "I laugh about it because we're always looking for the next somebody. Besides LaDainian, besides Edgerrin [James], besides Shaun Alexander, there's nobody even close to my production."

Therein lies the divide: Portis sees himself 16 games away from snatching Tomlinson's MVP trophy. Meanwhile, Joe Gibbs said yesterday he expected Betts to see more of the early workload against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday than Portis, who will start the game.

The message was clear: If his body is not right, Portis can forget reemerging as a Pro Bowler; he might be the No. 2 back on his own team.

His injury-shortened 2006 season already has become a harbinger for a trying 2007. The fact that he hasn't played in a game since last November and participated in fewer than 10 practices in 10 months has, at best, made Portis a question mark. At worst, he's a gimpy NFL diva.

So which Portis shows up Sunday against Miami? The guy Gibbs says is as tough and resilient as any back he's coached, the stutter-stepping, explosive Portis who was the league's fourth-leading rusher two years ago? Or the player babying tendinitis in his knee the last two months, who's coming off shoulder surgery, who makes light of the preseason and every other part of regular season preparation?

"People are going to believe what they want to believe, man," he said. "But for me to get hurt the way I got hurt, all of a sudden for people to think I got an injury problem or I can't do the things I used to do when I got hurt on some fluke [expletive] -- is just wrong.

"I got hurt making, probably, one of the best form tackles of last year. Just so happened it didn't count. I wasn't dogging it in the preseason. I listened to the doctors. Last year, I played and I got hurt. Whatcha want me to do?"

Whether it's realistic or not, it seems important for him to keep pace with his yearly predecessors at the position. Edgerrin James, who came into the NFL in 1999, has 10,385 yards and 70 touchdowns. Shaun Alexander, class of 2000, has rushed for 8,713 yards and 96 touchdowns. And Tomlinson, class of 2001, already has 9,176 yards and 100 touchdowns. With one more year of experience than Portis, L.T. has almost 3,000 more yards and 40 more touchdowns.

As frustrated as Portis is by the perception he's no longer an elite NFL running back, a more keen NFL observer says there is also something else going on with Portis: fear. Portis wants to believe he's still the player he was, but recent NFL history has to scare him.

Running backs hit the wall quickly because of injuries, declining health and the grind of each season. Jamal Lewis has never been the same after missing training camp and part of a season for the Ravens. Ahman Green went from a Pro Bowler to a below-average back now in Houston. Atlanta's Jamal Anderson hit the wall years ago. The cumulative effect of hits even slow down the bruisers, big backs such as Christian Okoye.

"There's nothing I got to show," Portis said. "The people who know what's up, the people who I need to think that I lost it are the defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins and the defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles. Or the Dallas Cowboys. When they start thinking I lost it, I would mind."

More doubters and detractors might be what Portis needs, someone else to challenge his pride and kick-start the engine that made him one of the most dangerous, shoot-the-gap threats in the NFL.

The gut here? This is about fear. And it doesn't matter whether his coaches, teammates or NFL observers feel Portis still belongs in the pantheon of the game's great backs. The question is: When he's alone and he's honest with himself, does Clinton Portis genuinely believe that?

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