By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008
Before practice one day early this season at Redskins Park, several of Washington's wide receivers poked fun at running back Clinton Portis for his lack of production in the passing game. Portis, considered the Redskins' most animated player, reacted as his teammates expected, making bold predictions about being one of the team's top receivers before the season ended.
As it turned out, Portis's projections were on target. He set career highs in receptions and receiving yards while improving as a receiving threat out of the backfield, providing a dependable target for quarterback Todd Collins on "check-down" passes when primary receivers were covered.
Portis's progress in that phase of the offense helped Washington win its final four games and clinch the NFC's last wild-card berth. The Redskins (9-7) will face the Seattle Seahawks (10-6) in the first round Saturday at Qwest Field, and Washington's wide receivers need new material to tease Portis.
"Guys were bothering him in practice, talking about he don't catch any, and he just got on fire this year," said wide receiver Santana Moss, Portis's closest friend on the team. "He caught more balls this year than I've seen him [catch] since college. He's just in a zone."
In 16 games, Portis had 47 receptions -- fourth on the team -- for 389 yards (an 8.3-yard average). His previous best totals were 40 catches and 364 yards. And Portis remained productive as the Redskins' featured running back, rushing for at least 1,200 yards for the fifth time in his six-year career.
A season after playing in only eight games because of shoulder and hand injuries, Portis gained 1,262 yards on 325 carries (a 3.9-yard average) with 11 touchdowns. After he also missed the entire offseason program and sat out most of the exhibition season, some observers questioned whether Portis's production would continue to decrease. Instead, Portis continued to succeed in the Redskins' rushing attack and became a bigger asset as a receiver.
"We teased him a lot, saying he's not an all-around back, just to mess with him a little," wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said. "Yeah, he can run the ball, he blocks like crazy, but we teased him about his catching. We really can't do that anymore. He's just made it a point to try to catch the ball. And when he catches it in the open field, he can do a whole lot with it.
"The first couple of games, he had one or two drops, but he hasn't had a lot of drops. On the check-down stuff, Clinton and Todd have been great. Todd is one of those guys who the check-down is really important to him. If you're on defense, you better find that check-down guy, because Todd is going to get it to him if he doesn't have anything downfield."
In offensive schemes, quarterbacks have primary and secondary targets on passing plays. While reading defenses, quarterbacks often determine their top options are not open, or longer routes are taking too long to develop, so they turn to their third and fourth options on check-downs. Portis has been at his best in these situations while working with Collins during the winning streak, Redskins players and coaches said, extending drives as Washington's offense operated at its most efficient level this season.
"He's told me, 'I want to catch 100 balls,' " Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We're not going to do that, he's a feature guy [as a runner], but those check-downs . . . are devastating.
"They're back covering deep, worried about our receivers, Santana and El and people like that, and it's those check-downs. . . . He wants to catch check-downs because they get him in space."
In a 24-16 victory over the Chicago Bears on Dec. 6, Portis led the Redskins with six receptions, mostly on check-downs, for 86 yards. On the opening possession of the second half, Collins, who wanted to go downfield, settled for a short pass to Portis as Bears defenders were closing in on him, and Portis rambled 54 yards to the Chicago 1-yard line. Two plays later, fullback Mike Sellers scored and the Redskins took a 14-0 lead.
Portis tied for the team lead with five receptions and had 48 yards in a 32-21 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 23. And in the second quarter of a 27-6 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Collins and Portis teamed on an 18-yard gain on a check-down during a drive that ended with place kicker Shaun Suisham's 46-yard field goal and gave the Redskins a 10-0 lead.
"He's playing at his best level right now, catching the football, running the football, blocking," assistant head coach-offense Joe Bugel said. "When we get him in the secondary now, he's making people miss. That is key for us right now. He's playing at a great level for us."
Although some of his teammates seem surprised about his receiving skills, Portis knew he "had some of the best hands on the team, it was just the concentration," he said. "I [was] always trying to do something before looking the ball in. Now, it's go to the point, look the ball in, then do whatever I can."
Portis has been in rhythm with Collins. Primarily a backup throughout his 13-year NFL career, Collins has been outstanding since becoming a starter after Jason Campbell dislocated his left kneecap and strained a knee ligament in the Dec. 6 game against Chicago. (Campbell is not expected to be on the active roster against Seattle.)
"He's amazing," Bugel said of Collins. "This is why Portis is catching a lot of passes, because he can hit check-downs. The backs know that they are viable receivers when he's back there."
Associate head coach-offense Al Saunders often tells Portis "that we're going to the check-down if nothing on the outside [is] open, so be ready," Moss said. "He's been ready."
Campbell also utilized the check-down, which often is effective on third down, but Portis acknowledged he has a higher "comfort level for Todd to drop a check-down," he said. "I feel like he's going throw it to me with nobody around. With Jason, he might toss me a check-down with three people standing there. I just think the difference is reading the defense. You look at the defense, see where their lineman is and find the gap. It's been there."
Collins is pleased with the results, too.
"He's done a great job of being there," he said. "None of it works, you can't even get to your check-down, if you don't have the proper protection, and that's what's been happening. We're having the proper time to get through the progressions, get to that second, third, fourth read and get it down to Clinton. He's making guys miss."