Portis Could Use the Backup

The Washington Post's Jason Reid previews the game Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. Video by washingtonpost.com
By Mike Wise
Saturday, October 18, 2008

I must have heard, "Put a fork in Shaun Alexander, he's done," about 50 times this week. That tired phrase was used to argue Washington's signing of Seattle's once-great tailback was an outright mistake, that Clinton Portis didn't need some washed-up 31-year-old slasher backing him up.

Most of these revisionist historians forget, of course, they had said the same thing about Portis at some point over the past two years. Their assessment went something like this: Too brittle, taken too many hits and lost too much explosiveness to be a premier back again.

Did we mention Portis leads the league in rushing and carries after six games this season, a year after leading the NFL in carries?

I'm not saying Alexander has another 20-plus touchdown season in his legs; I am saying the shelf life of an NFL running back isn't what it once was, that the pounding they take from defenders larger and faster than Walter Payton or Tony Dorsett ever faced leads to premature retirements and much shorter careers than some of their peers from the last millennium.

And if Portis, an injured Ladell Betts and that backfield can get any relief from any player who has something to prove, then signing Alexander to a veteran-minimum contract is an absolute no-brainer.

After all, who knows the superstar-to-waivers existence of the NFL better?

In March 2006, barely 2 1/2 years ago, Alexander signed an eight-year, $62 million deal that was supposed to keep him in Seattle until he approached 40. In total money, the contract was the richest signed by a running back, and it came after he set the league's single-season record for touchdowns. He never missed a game his first six seasons.

The 2005 NFL MVP was cut from his team less than two years later, forced to kick-start his career under Jim Zorn, the Seahawks' former quarterbacks coach.

Running backs hit the wall more quickly, it seems, than other players because of injuries, declining health and the grind of each season. Ahman Green and Jamal Anderson, for instance, used to be thought of as part of the elite class before they puttered out after a few years apiece.

Remember when Priest Holmes was supposed to be the next Marshall Faulk, until his body betrayed him and he found out he couldn't even beat out the next Larry Johnson? The cumulative effect of hits prematurely ended the careers of bruising, big backs like Christian Okoye.

"Priest probably had the best short span before injuries took him away, and Larry Johnson jumped on the scene, and he was somethin' new," Portis said. "All of a sudden everybody loved him. That's the way it is with us; we're big one minute, and everybody thinks we're gone the next."

Alexander is an anomaly because sanctioned violence didn't short-circuit his career as much as freak injuries and a team's utter loss of confidence in him. But he has seen the trend.

"Nothing drastic will happen, but their numbers will drop," Alexander said. "I think it's age. For me, it wasn't something drastic. So, I guess, we're betting on that."

Payton played 13 years and had three 1,000-plus yard seasons after turning 30. Emmitt Smith played 15 years and had three seasons of at least 1,000 yards after he turned 30. John Riggins rushed for more than 1,000 yards three times as well in his 30s and probably would have had another had he not decided to sit out a year. Franco Harris ran for 1,007 yards when he was 33.

The only player today who has similar accomplishments is Fred Taylor, who went to the Pro Bowl for the first time last season after rushing for more than 1,200 yards at age 31.

"I think the body takes a pounding," Zorn said, when asked to explain why premier backs don't last as long as they once did in the NFL. "You have 270-pound linemen, 300-pound linemen and linebackers that are going fast, and the collisions are violent."

Portis was thought in some circles to be on his way out last summer when he came back from an injury-riddled season the year before. He was listed No. 17 among running backs on Sports Illustrated's top 500 player rankings (202nd overall), behind Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch, then a rookie. He was ranked 199 spots behind LaDainian Tomlinson, the 2007 NFL MVP who's showing signs of wear and tear this season.

"You can't talk to me about another back when it comes to consistency besides Edgerrin James, Fred Taylor, LaDainian and Shaun Alexander," Portis said. "Everybody else? Consistent for seven years? My numbers haven't been sky-high or dead low, but they've been steady.

"You talkin' about us taking a pounding and me having as many carries as I did last year, but the knock on me was pulling myself out of the game," Portis continued. "I just led the league in carries, but everybody still talking about I come out of the game when I want to. So should I stay in the game for 500 carries?"

No. That's what Betts, Rock Cartwright and now Alexander are for, spelling the current league's leading rusher before his body takes too much punishment and Portis has to be somebody's backup.

Zorn said that because Alexander's production fell off so dramatically after 2005, "people look at him and say, 'He's done. It's over for him.' Is he less of a running back because nobody wanted him? No."

Asked what kind of used car Alexander would make at this juncture in his career, Zorn called him a "a pre-owned Mercedes" with enough miles left to warrant a gamble.

I don't care if he's a '72 Super Beetle with gray primer that doesn't go 65 mph unless pushed off a cliff. If Shaun Alexander can reduce the wear and tear on a healthier back's body in this unforgiving league, even for a few carries, why not take that chance?

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