Carrying the Ball, and the Load
Monday, September 29, 2008
IRVING, Tex., Sept. 28 -- Over the course of a game, Jim Zorn appears to be in the ear of nearly every Washington Redskins offensive player. When the defense is on the field, the first-year head coach is nearly attached to the hip of quarterback Jason Campbell. When the offensive line came to the bench after one series Sunday, he followed those players to their seats, pointing and speaking quite emphatically.
But the message Zorn delivered that may have sealed Sunday's jarring 26-24 victory over the Dallas Cowboys came in the third quarter. His featured running back, Clinton Portis, was in the midst of an outing that had the Redskins in position to wear out favored Dallas. Zorn bent at the waist to get closer to Portis, who was seated.
"I've got to work you a little bit now," Zorn said.
The result: Portis's most productive game of the season, a 21-carry, 121-yard performance that included not only the bursts into the open field that appeared, at times, to be a thing of Portis's past, but also the grind-it-out yards in the fourth quarter that allowed the Redskins to run down the clock and kick the field goal that gave them a fairly safe nine-point lead.
Portis's average of 5.8 yards per carry was his best in a game since midway through the 2005 season, 34 games earlier. It was his 20th 100-yard game, a new Redskins regular season record, one more than John Riggins. And his countenance afterward, as he dressed in a sweltering visitors' locker room at Texas Stadium, said that he welcomed the opportunity Zorn provided, to work.
"Any time somebody come to you to tell you, 'We're going to come at you,' they're coming at you because they feel like you can respond," Portis said. "That builds confidence in you, and you really don't want to let them down."
Which he did not. Portis played with a neck he described as "a little stiff" afterward, the result of a by-the-collar tackle in last week's victory over Arizona. He did it with an ankle he twisted in the second half, a condition that had him on the sideline when Zorn wanted him -- needed him -- in the game. Zorn's description: "He just was a quiet workman," a high compliment.
"He went to work and just pounded inside," Zorn said. "There [were] a couple times when he would get hit, and he just kept his legs moving, and he'd get four more yards."
This has been a bit of an interesting season for Portis. Accustomed to taking a weekly pounding and no longer ripping off the breakaway runs that defined him during his first two NFL seasons, in Denver, he said in an interview after a season-opening loss to the New York Giants he would like, for one week, to trade places with another elite back in the league, just to see how he would do in another scheme with another offensive line.
That brought a storm of criticism and led to a volatile on-air exchange with former Redskins running back Brian Mitchell, who now serves as a co-host on John Thompson's radio show.
Sunday, though, Portis was pleased with his situation. "We were just pounding, just staying in a rhythm," he said. "Our passing game was opening things up. Our line was blocking great. I would break a tackle and kind of be off to the races."
His longest run came on the drive that might have defined the victory, the Redskins' first possession of the second half. Dallas had just tied the game at 17, and the crowd was riled up.
On third and two from their 43-yard line, wideout Antwaan Randle El ran behind the backs after the snap, faking an end around to the right. That sucked in at least a couple of defenders, and Campbell gave the ball to Portis, who ran left. Thirty-one yards later, Portis had his longest carry of the year, and Washington had a first down on a drive that eventually finished with a field goal -- and would have been a Portis touchdown had center Casey Rabach not been called for holding.
"Those big chunks," tackle Jon Jansen said, "they can change the game."
The other instance that defined this day for Portis: The Washington possession that began with 10 minutes 16 seconds left in the game, holding a 23-17 lead. He ran three consecutive times to start the possession, gaining 27 yards. He came out, replaced by Ladell Betts. Zorn, though, needed him in.
"You can mix it up for so long, and start taking chances," Zorn said. Portis reentered the game. He got the final two carries to set up the field goal. And when he walked off the field, he did so with his coach knowing he could be trusted with the workload that was necessary to win the game.