By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008
The pile of bodies on the turf was, in any other context, a strange setting for a celebration. But Casey Rabach rose to his knees, raised his right fist and pumped it. Randy Thomas hauled himself up next to him, and the two hit each other on the helmet before they headed back to the Washington Redskins' bench.
From the bottom of the pile emerged Clinton Portis, holding the football. Portis popped to his feet, took a step into the end zone, and spun that football like a top. It was his seventh touchdown in seven games this season, and as Rabach, Thomas and the rest of the offensive linemen congratulated each other, Portis listened to the crowd's roar, watching that ball spin, a personal celebration he shared with 90,000 fans.
"The line's blocking great," Portis would say later, after the Redskins had secured a 14-11 victory over Cleveland, after he had run for 175 yards and that score, helping him continue to lead the NFL in rushing.
"Obviously, that reflects well on us," Rabach said later.
It may seem obvious that Portis's performance to this point would reflect well on the line. This, though, is a complex relationship. There are perhaps no two positions in football as intertwined as offensive line and running back, because one cannot run if the other doesn't open holes, and the holes don't matter if the back doesn't hit them at the right moment.
Yet the two occupy completely different realms, Portis squarely in the spotlight and enjoying it, driving his black Maserati to work and parking it last week in the preferred spot reserved for the Redskins' "Offensive Player of the Week." The linemen pull their pickups and sport-utility vehicles into the same lot, parking, most weeks, where they can. As veteran tackle Chris Samuels said, "We just go to work."
They are teammates, and each depends on the other, but that doesn't mean they are required to be close away from the field or in the locker room. Portis seemed to emphasize as much after the first game this season, when he spoke openly about his career in Washington. He said then that his numbers were not as gaudy as they might be because, among other factors, "I'm dodging people in the backfield."
Portis said that came about for several reasons, particularly because opponents hadn't previously respected the Redskins' ability to pass. The words, unusually forthcoming for a world in which professional athletes speak largely in platitudes, struck a nerve, and the public discourse suddenly centered on questions of whether Portis was a team player. His linemen appeared particularly under attack.
Now, Portis is averaging 117 yards per game, more than 17 yards better than anyone else in the league. He has nearly 400 more yards through seven games this year than he did through the first seven a year ago. He has eight carries of at least 20 yards; in 2007, he had three all season. He is averaging 5.0 yards per carry, his best since 2003, when he was still with Denver, third-best among backs who get the ball at least 15 times per game.
And in the six games since he appeared to outsiders to be frustrated with his situation, he has gained 734 yards, his best six-game stretch as a Redskin. Now, provide him the opportunity to speak about that line -- from left to right, Samuels, Pete Kendall, Rabach, Thomas and Jon Jansen -- and he provides run-on sentences worth of praise.
"I think it's great just to have all the guys back together, you know," Portis said. "For five years, you really haven't had that, where you had a complete line with Randy and Jansen," who both missed almost all of last year with injuries.
"We were always missing one of those guys," he continued. "We had shuffles going on. We didn't have a tight end. I think right now just having the consistency, having guys who've played together, having the same team who went through camp come out and line up, not filling guys in, the communication, guys knowing other guys' weak points, being able to help out everybody that's out on the field, the strong and weak points of everybody else. I think it's just team ball."
Inside the sidelines at FedEx Field or today in Detroit, where the 5-2 Redskins face the winless Lions, team ball is an easy concept to understand. But the interactions between teammates, in private and public, are more nuanced. Jansen has been a Redskin almost a decade, longer than anyone on the team. After he showered last week in the FedEx Field locker room, he was asked about Portis and his comments from earlier in the season, about whether they had anything to do with how the running game developed.
"I'd rather not comment on it right now," Jansen said, gathering his bags. "It wouldn't do us any good."Respect in the Workplace
The locker room at Redskins Park, the team's practice facility in Ashburn, is a simple rectangle lined by more than 60 stalls, enough for 53 active players as well as practice squad members and a few guys on injured reserve. Immediately on the left by the main entrance sits the locker of wide receiver Santana Moss, next to that of Portis, next to the glassed-in, sealed-up stall of Sean Taylor, the late safety. Thomas's locker is three stalls down from Portis. Jansen and Rabach, friends on and off the field, are farther down the same wall, beyond a secondary set of swinging doors, right next to each other. Kendall, acquired in a trade only last year, sets up shop across the room, almost directly opposite Portis.
A pro football locker room is unlike almost any other workplace. The Redskins have players from 28 states in addition to the District of Columbia and Canada. They are single and married, partiers and homebodies, devoutly religious and agnostic. "We run the gamut in here," Rabach said.
No unit needs to be more cohesive than the offensive line. But even that group comes from disparate backgrounds. Samuels grew up in Mobile, Ala., the youngest of four sons born to a disabled Vietnam veteran and a mother who worked at odd jobs -- house cleaning, helping at a bakery -- to provide for her family. Kendall was raised in the blue-collar Boston suburb of Weymouth; his father was a policeman in neighboring Quincy, his mother a homemaker. Rabach grew up in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. (population: 9,000), the son of a cop and a restaurant manager. Thomas crisscrossed Georgia in a single-parent home, his mom working on the line at a plant that produced plastic. Jansen's parents were both schoolteachers, and they still live in the Detroit suburb of Clawson from which they will travel to see him play today.
Of the five starters -- Jansen has now regained his right tackle position over second-year player Stephon Heyer, who started the season opener -- only Samuels is single, and even he said, "Me, I go home, ice my knees, look at my plays, and just chill." They are all at least 31 years old, and among them have 11 children whose pictures adorn their lockers, Kendall's at his beach house in Massachusetts, Rabach's back home in Wisconsin. Though Jansen and Rabach occasionally hunt whitetail together, they haven't in more than a year. The linemen cart kids to school, then show up to work. There, they are together. That, they said, is what matters.
Offensive line coach Joe Bugel "has a saying," Kendall said. "'Chemistry's watching film together. Chemistry's practicing together. Chemistry's not necessarily drinking a case of beer together.'
"Don't get me wrong," Kendall said. "That doesn't hurt. But I don't think it's a prerequisite."
Portis turned 27 last month. He is single and lives in a mansion secluded in the McLean woods. He is the Redskins' highest-paid player, guaranteed $15.7 million through 2010. Linemen generally aren't the recipients of such largesse. Portis is decidedly different than almost everyone else in the Washington locker room, alternately speaking so quietly he seems shy and, in seasons past, dressing himself in elaborate costumes for his meetings with the media. None of the linemen seeks or receives the kind of attention focused on Portis, particularly now that he has reeled off four straight games of at least 120 yards.
"You can't shut him up, right?" Thomas said, well aware of Portis's proclivity to say whatever pops in his brain.
"Most people think I'm a jerk," Portis said this week. "Most people think I'm stuck on myself or . . . on my own schedule. It's always opinions. I can't make people understand me for what I'm worth."
In essence, the linemen said it doesn't much matter how they understand Portis or what he says. The public can read into the relationship between a back and a line, they said, but as Samuels said: "Guys want to make a living, to get a new contract. They're not going to let guys slip through and hit their running back just because they have a disagreement with them or they dislike them or something."
"My job is to go block that guy in this way," Kendall said, "and it's the running back's job to be there. . . . We have our plays, we have our assignments to go along with those plays and the techniques that go with those assignments, whether it's Clinton or [backups] Shaun [Alexander] or Rock [Cartwright]. We don't change what we do."
Or, as Thomas said: "You don't have to like everybody you work with. That's the key. But I think you earn a lot of respect by how you play and how you go about carrying yourself while you're playing."
That is, then, where Portis earns the level of respect he has in the locker room. It is not at practice, in which he did not participate on the Wednesday or Thursday leading up to the game against the Browns, nor did he do so this week, nursing a litany of aches and pains -- a shin, an ankle, his neck, a hip. Instead, he watched in sweatpants as the linemen and backs went through their drills. Coach Jim Zorn does not consider such an arrangement ideal, but he understands, he said, "because he really does get beat up."
And there is the matter of how Portis plays on Sundays.
"If you have a problem with Clinton Portis, put on a game film and watch him play," tight end Chris Cooley said. "He's a hard, hard-nosed football player."
That is how Portis wants to be known, both inside the locker room and by the public. But he often speaks about what he perceives as misperceptions of what he says and what he does.
"I can only do my job," he said earlier in the season. "And I think, within this organization, they see I do my job. I can't control other people's jobs."
Nor can the linemen control how Portis performs his.Team Ball at Its Finest
Through seven games, the Redskins' running game is working for a variety of reasons -- not only because the line is intact and familiar with each other and not only because Portis is healthy and running hard, but because fullback Mike Sellers is serving as a ferocious lead blocker and Zorn has proved, for the most part, to be a nimble and savvy play-caller.
"There's so many connecting parts," Kendall said. It is at least partly because of that, the linemen said, that they were able to handle the perception of Portis's comments early in the season.
"I think we've all felt, at one time or another, if another guy had done this or another guy had done that, things might have been different," Kendall said. "In this game, one hand washes the other so much."
And there is, it seems, a wide berth for Portis within his own locker room, a certain "Clinton being Clinton" permissiveness. The Redskins understand Portis will prepare himself how he prepares himself, will say what he says, and everyone else must deal with it. As outlandish as he might seem, there are very few surprises.
"I love Clinton," Thomas said, "because he's consistent with it."
"He's just open," Cooley said. "He shares with the fans. He shares his feelings. I don't think there's any problem with that. I feel like that's what people want to hear, whether they like it or not. They get what's on his mind, and I think that's real."
After the win over Cleveland last week, Portis entered the interview room down the hall from the Redskins' locker room at FedEx Field, the place where stars go to address the media. It is hardly the domain of offensive linemen. Linebacker London Fletcher was still speaking at a podium. Portis sat in a chair, clutching a pair of sunglasses, and inspected his cuticles, appearing bored. Only when Fletcher finished did Portis rise. And when he did, he unfolded the shades -- garish gold numbers, adding flash to his diamond earrings -- put them on, and stood in front of a bank of cameras, the spotlight squarely on him.
"As far as team ball," he said, "I think all the personal stats and personal ideas and wanting to do this and wanting to do that is out for me. I want to win. It don't matter if I have 175 yards or I have 75 yards. If we come out with a win, I can come out with a smile on my face."
Seven weeks into the season, Clinton Portis is smiling, his linemen are smiling. They are six individuals playing team ball, running over opponents regardless what any of them says.