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Hitting His Stride

By Mike Wise
Monday, October 20, 2008

Rhonnel Hearn has a pronouncement to make. It comes from behind the north end zone of FedEx Field, where the euphoric woman in an official NFL jersey -- its No. 26 outlined with sparkling sequins -- just finished bear-hugging her son.

"I need a good trip to Hawaii," Clinton Portis's mother said.

C.P., are you with me? It's time to send Mom and the fam back to paradise. Six years is too long a wait.

"It'd be great, but if I didn't, who cares?" Portis said. "I'd rather win than go back to the Pro Bowl."

Portis lowered his shoulder again, braced that thick neck of his for impact and ran past and over a defense from Cleveland that was said to be good against the run. On a groundhog day in the trenches, where both teams seemed to sign a nonaggression pact on offense in the first half, Portis and his offensive line powered Washington past the Browns in another trap-and-block clinic that makes you forget how good Jason Campbell is becoming under Jim Zorn, and how much Greg Blache's defense looks as formidable as some of Gregg Williams's.

Portis ran for 175 yards, building his league-leading rushing total to 818 after just seven games. Though his fumble in the fourth quarter led to Cleveland's only touchdown, the bigger picture is Portis has now rushed for at least 120 yards in the last four straight games -- a feat he last accomplished with Denver late in the 2003 season.

"I think C.P. is an absolute workhorse," Zorn said, and no one can argue.

One-hundred-sixty-three carries, which also leads the league. An average of 5.0 yards per carry. Seven touchdowns. It's hard for anyone barely 27 years old to be thought of as having a renaissance, but such is life in the good-to-be-young NFL, where 20-something running backs are gobbled up and discarded before they're 30.

"He was 19th on some ranking for running backs last year," Rhonnel said, miffed over the disrespect afforded her son. "Nineteenth! That's crazy. Clinton is the best in the league. We always knew that."

Because of injuries, Portis's career was indeed at a crossroads in the summer of 2007. He was only 26 years old, but a litany of ailments had prevented him from playing in a game since the previous November. Portis had participated in fewer than 10 practices in 10 months and the team's training staff candidly admitted they wished Portis had taken his rehabilitation more seriously.

When the team fell into a midseason funk, he backpacked the Redskins toward .500, once rushing for more than 200 yards against the Jets. After Sean Taylor's slaying, he dedicated his season to his best friend on the team and ended up leading the NFL in carries en route to the team's improbable run toward the playoffs.

Another crucial turning point: the tearing up of his old contract. Not only did it include a new signing bonus and guarantee about three years of his salary, about $16 million, it also made Portis accountable for staying in shape during the offseason, almost all of which was spent in Ashburn. His home base, Miami, was put on hold in favor of remaining with his team.

Vinny Cerrato, the team's general manager, noticed a trend immediately. The more players saw Portis pushing weights and profusely sweating in the team's workout room, the more they went inside themselves and began following the lead of their veteran running back.

"It helped a lot," Portis said of his spring and summer regimen. "The leg drive. The pounding. I think it played a large role. The offseason worked out great for me."

Yes, he still speaks his mind, carrying around a chip on his muscular shoulder with every carry.

Before Week 2, after the Giants loss, Portis did his Ol' Faithful thing -- and then some, spouting off in The Post about the frustrations of a big-play threat morphing into a short-yardage back in Washington.

"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," was one of his more provocative quotes.

"Clinton is Clinton," Casey Rabach, the team's veteran center, said last night, when asked if egos on the offensive line were wounded. "We took it as a grain of salt and moved on.

"I mean, if we didn't do something perfect in walk-through, we'd look at Clinton and say, 'Should we replace Randy with a different guy?' Or 'Should we replace me?' But it's all in good fun."

He added, "When that guy's healthy, I don't know if there's a better back in the league."

For all the talk, his individual goals have nothing on leading a team to the Super Bowl.

Portis was vacationing in Puerto Rico in February 2007 when he ran into the Super Bowl champion Colts in his hotel.

"They didn't want to talk," he said. "I knew Reggie Wayne and a lot of guys. But for them to be down there as a team enjoying themselves and celebrating, it was an awkward situation. So I was outta there."

You left Puerto Rico because the Colts were there after winning the Super Bowl?

"Yep."

His last trip to the Pro Bowl, he said, was not just rewarding but expensive. "Clinton was young," said Shaun Alexander, his new teammate. "Let's just say we gave him the rookie experience."

"Priest Holmes calls me in Hawaii, asks, 'Man, what room you in? I'm going to call you,' " Portis said. "I'm like, '814.' Never heard from him, but you go to check out and you see charges on your credit card for mai tais. I know I didn't drink 200 mai tais over that weekend. He and Shaun owe me about $15,000 still."

Portis laughed and paused for serious introspection. He was asked if he felt any vindication after many league observers thought his best days were behind him last summer.

"You can't show me a more consistent back throughout this NFL than me," he said. "Every year it's whoever hot. The guy who just had a great season [Adrian Peterson] just popped on the scene and now he's the best back in the NFL. But when it comes to blocking, to springing and playing with everything they got, I don't see nobody."

Nor do Rhonnel Hearn and Clinton's stepfather, Todd Pearson. They had a nice hotel room on Waikiki Beach, their own cabana.

"Nice trip," Clinton's mom said. "I'd love to go again."

If her son stays healthy, she might as well book it.

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