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Feeling Trapped in Tight Spaces

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008

When the first man hits him, Clinton Portis is left to wonder what it's like for other running backs in other places. When he takes the handoff, he said he too often sees only a mass of humanity, darkness where there should be light. It wasn't like this in Denver during his first two seasons in the NFL, both of them brilliant. Maybe it's not like this elsewhere.

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"I really wish," Portis said, "that I could switch places."

Give Portis the ball, and the Washington Redskins tailback will carry it. No back in the league did so more than Portis's 325 times last season, and if the Redskins' offense is to succeed, the burden falls not only on quarterback Jason Campbell -- the subject of so much scrutiny as Sunday's home opener against New Orleans approaches -- but on the ox-strong legs of their 27-year-old featured performer.

"We're going to use Clinton," first-year head coach Jim Zorn said. "We've got to."

Forget, for a moment, the ball. The other thing Portis can capably carry is the conversation. Just a week into his fifth season with the Redskins -- a season that began with 23 carries for 84 yards in a loss to the New York Giants -- he is in full turn-on-the-spigot-and-let-it-flow mode. The numbers, he believes, don't tell the story of what he is capable of, what he means to the Redskins -- even though he owns three of the top 10 single-season rushing marks in club history. The circumstances -- injuries and churn on the offensive line, changes at quarterback and wide receiver and on the coaching staff -- do.

"I wish I could go to a team for one week with the best offensive line, or the team with the best scheme, and switch places with their back and see how others would do in this system," Portis said, sitting on a couch the other day at Redskins Park. "I get a lot of touches with nowhere to run. I could see if I got all those touches and had some lanes, but there's nine or 10 men in the box.

"You know, I'm dodging all the people in the backfield, fighting just to get back to the line of scrimmage, and people [are] looking around like, 'Oh, he just missed it.' I'm dodging people getting the handoff, because nobody's really respecting us as a passing team."

Two things about which to be clear: In the same conversation, Portis stood up for Campbell, whose adjustment to Zorn's offense is receiving magnifying-glass attention. "I believe in him," Portis said. Portis added that he doesn't rue the trade that brought him to Washington prior to the 2004 season -- a deal, according to then-Denver General Manager Ted Sundquist, Portis helped engineer because the Broncos wouldn't rework his contract.

"That was an opportunity for me to gain an appreciation of what you have," Portis said. "Now, I can't look back and say, 'Man, I wish I was still in Denver,' because I think being here made me a man."

He will, though, have to be a man -- perhaps the man -- for the Redskins' offense to succeed. He is signed through 2010, guaranteed $15.7 million over that time. And he is, by all accounts, the person who will be asked, again and again, to take the ball, regardless of the size of the holes or their existence at all.

Only two men -- Pro Bowlers Brian Westbrook of Philadelphia and LaDainian Tomlinson of San Diego -- touched the ball as many times as Portis last season, and he trailed only those two in yards from scrimmage. But break it down by the average yards per touch -- Westbrook's 5.7 to Tomlinson's 5.2 to Portis's 4.4 -- and there is a gulf in production. Consider, too, that in 29 games over two years in Denver, Portis had 24 runs of at least 20 yards, six of more than 40. In 56 games for Washington, he has 18 times gained 20 yards. His last run of 40 or more yards came in 2005.

"I'm not going to say I didn't miss some opportunities over the last five, six years to have a home run," Portis said. "But [shoot], it was hard to come by those opportunities. And all of a sudden it'd pop up, and you miss it. That one time that you miss it, it don't come back."

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