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.
"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."
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.' "