By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008
DETROIT, Oct. 26 -- The last time Washington Redskins Coach Jim Zorn got into a televised shouting match with one of his players, the target of his anger was a wide-eyed rookie punter. Sunday in Detroit, Zorn again publicly displayed frustration with one of his charges, but this time it was his biggest star, running back Clinton Portis, who continued to shine in Washington's 25-17 win.
The NFL's leading rusher gained 126 yards on 24 carries, giving him 944 at the season's midway point and preserving his spot among the front-runners for league MVP. Still, after his fifth straight game gaining at least 120 yards, many of the postgame questions concerned Portis's run-in with his rookie head coach.
Portis didn't enter the game when Washington took possession on the last play of the first quarter. As the second quarter began, Portis stayed on the sideline, dealing with an equipment problem, while backup Shaun Alexander remained on the field.
According to Zorn, Portis then checked himself back in without conveying that information to the coach, leading to confusion in Zorn's play-calling. After that drive ended and Detroit took over, cameras showed Zorn animatedly reprimanding Portis on the sidelines.
"I'm calling the game based on who's in there, right?" Zorn said later. "And when he went in there, he just misunderstood the situation, and we had a sweet exchange of words about when to go in."
Under previous coach Joe Gibbs, Portis had the freedom to signal in backup Ladell Betts and head to the sideline at his own discretion. After Sunday's game, Portis said he wasn't sure whether he was supposed to relay every substitution to the head coach, but he repeatedly labeled the incident a "miscommunication" and said he regretted it had happened.
"He was excited, and I was excited, so when two grown men get excited and two grown men [are] eager, you know, you'll have that miscommunication," Portis said. "I never want somebody to question or feel like I wasn't there. I never want my teammates to feel like I wasn't there, I never want my coaches to feel like I wasn't there.
"Every Sunday I'm gonna show up. I mean, I'm gonna give all I've got. So if there's any miscommunication about why I'm not somewhere and you think I'm supposed to be there, or why something didn't happen, come ask me. You never point the finger and not know. It's just like you're innocent until proven guilty. So it was really a miscommunication."
Portis and several of his teammates said such emotional conversations are not unusual on NFL sidelines, and they're quickly forgotten. Still, Zorn saw fit to address the incident in the locker room at halftime, and Portis appeared momentarily discouraged after the conversation.
"I mean, that's me," he said. "When you're building something special like what we're building here, being 6-2, the accomplishments that we have; when everybody's playing together, and you single-handedly get called out? I've got pride just like Coach Zorn's got pride."
Several teammates approached Portis on the sidelines to offer a pat on the back or a few words of encouragement, and they said they had no doubt he would respond well.
"Whatever energy you're feeling, just direct it towards the Detroit Lions, focus on the game and go out there and do your job," said Betts, summarizing his message. "I mean, there's so many emotional things that go on on the sidelines in the course of a game. You'll see many different players get into different situations, yelling matches, whatever you want to call it, but it's part of the game."
Portis provided a scare late in the fourth quarter when he blazed 31 yards through the heart of the defense but then came up lame, writhing on the turf. He said he aggravated a lingering ankle issue, and the sharp pain calmed down before he left the field. He said he expected to be in pain this week, but he would be ready for next Monday night's meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As for his coach, both Zorn and Portis said the issue was settled. After their noisy conversation, Zorn called Portis's number on five of Washington's next seven plays, and he continued to rely on the back throughout the Redskins' win.
"It was the heat of the game for me," Zorn said. "And he explained what happened to him. I explained what my deal was. And so we just came to an understanding."
Zorn's first public target, rookie punter Durant Brooks, was released several weeks after drawing his coach's ire. Portis, who has 260 more rushing yards than anyone in the league and is on pace to set a career high in that category, obviously will face a different fate.
"A lot of time when you're in a groove like this, you have so much stuff going in your mind," said Alexander, who also attempted to encourage Portis during that second quarter. "He's a good player, and he's about to step into greatness, and we want to make sure that we can ride this horse as far as it can go."