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Feeling Trapped in Tight Spaces
Portis insists that home-run ability is still there. "I know I still got it," he said. Others aren't sure.
"His decisiveness as a runner between the tackles seems a little bit hampered by the blocking schemes up front," said Sundquist, who drafted Portis and eventually traded him for all-pro cornerback Champ Bailey. "Especially under [former coach Joe] Gibbs, they weren't running a zone blocking scheme. As I watch Washington now, he gets kind of caught up in there and tends to start dancing, and he loses that lower power that he has. I just see more two- or three-yard runs out of Clinton than I ever did here. Even his bad runs here, they felt like they were four or five."
Now, those bad runs are for short gains, no gain, losses. A dozen of Portis's carries against the Giants, more than half, went for three yards or less. Seventeen players ran for more yards than Portis in the opening week; none of them averaged fewer than his 3.7 yards per carry.
"Those are tough yards, aren't they?" Zorn said. It is precisely Portis's point. When the first body hits you at the line of scrimmage or behind it, what are you supposed to do? The home run is gone. "You got to get a single," he said, regardless of the external perception.
"People just outside looking in see 'Clinton Portis: 80 yards,' " Portis said. "Even though Clinton Portis would love to have 160 to 170 yards, those 80 yards, sometimes it's the hardest 80 yards you possibly will see somebody get if you watch the game. It's not like it's daylight there."
The offensive linemen acknowledge their role in Portis's production, regardless of the numbers. "We got the group to really get him going this year," veteran guard Randy Thomas said. "We have to not talk about it and do it."
There are, though, other factors involved when teammates and coaches assess Portis's body of work. At the forefront is just that: Work. Portis, by his own admission, is not a practice player. Unprompted, he reels off a list of teammates who work harder than him -- wide receiver James Thrash, running back Rock Cartwright, tight end Chris Cooley, on and on.
"They prepare full-speed," Portis said. "I prepare to learn. I prepare to get my game down. On Wednesday, I'm thinking, 'Learn my system, not making the mental mistakes. Know what I got to do.' On Thursday, I'm thinking, 'Get everything in place, more up-tempo, get my reads and that.' On Friday, I'm thinking, 'Relax, know everything by Friday, not have questions, not be clueless.' On Saturday, let me go out here and execute my plays correctly. No false steps, no missteps, make all my reads. And then when I get into the game on Sunday -- play football."
That occasionally befuddles coaches and teammates. This week, Zorn quickly praised what he has discovered about Portis. "He really cares," Zorn said. Yet he shudders at Portis's notions about practice.
"I think you get out of the game what you put into your practices, too," Zorn said. "We might as well not come out if that's the way it is."
There is no more common fundamental thread in football, from Pop Warner to the pros, than the notion that the quality of practice is directly related to the quality of play. Impressing that on Portis, though, has been difficult.
"He does have some growing to do as far as his approach to practice, preparation, conditioning, being able to work through injuries during practice -- all of those things, at least when I was there," said Earnest Byner, who served as the Redskins' running backs coach under Gibbs and now holds the same position with Tennessee. ". . . You also need to understand how that dynamic affects the entire picture, not just the individual."
The upshot: There can be a trickle-down from Portis's practice attitude to other members of the team. No one, though -- not Byner, not Zorn, not the linemen -- questioned Portis's commitment to game-day performance. He is a fierce pass protector. He finishes even the runs that are doomed. Last week, he talked at length with Zorn during the game about how to adjust a particular play. He told Thomas how to better square up a block to give him room to cut.
"Anyone who's the guy that runs this offense, that's our wheels to this offense, wants to be the wheels," wide receiver Santana Moss said.
Leaning back into the couch, Portis said he indeed wants to be the wheels. He was just that for the Broncos, a football lifetime ago. Now, whether he daydreams about being behind another line or in another city, he believes he can be again. He believes, too, that everyone in the league knows that.
"I can guarantee you there's never been a time a defensive coordinator came into the game and was like: 'Portis, don't worry about Portis. He's not capable of winning this game,' " Portis said. "I guarantee you that. I guarantee you when they turn on the film, they say, 'We stop Portis, we got a great chance.' "