By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008
For one drive last night, both Clinton Portis and his offensive teammates looked like they had rediscovered their early-season swagger. The first time the Washington Redskins touched the ball, they needed 10 plays to reach the end zone. Five of those plays were Portis's runs, which netted 29 yards and an average of nearly six yards per carry.
But this wasn't October -- when Portis ripped through NFL defenses to seize the league rushing lead -- and the franchise running back wasn't the same player who won NFC offensive player of the month honors. He didn't practice all week after spraining his medial collateral ligament against the Pittsburgh Steelers two weeks ago, and he was a game-time decision last night. After that first drive, Portis gained just 39 more yards, and the Redskins didn't again find the end zone in their 14-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
In a brief interview with ESPN 980 before leaving the locker room, Portis said he made the decision to play right before the game, after testing his knee well before the rest of his teammates took the field.
"Once you get adrenaline and all that going, you block out the pain," he said. "I'll sit back and be like, 'Ow, man,' [on Monday], but I'll be all right."
Whether the running game will recover its early-season form remains to be seen. When the Redskins were cruising last month, Portis was their engine, rushing for at least 120 yards in five straight games, four of which were wins. He led all NFL players with 616 yards from scrimmage in the month of October, and after the Redskins' victory over Detroit to close the month, he had 260 more rushing yards than any other back.
Then came the loss to Pittsburgh, in which the offense stagnated as Portis was held to 51 yards on the ground. He said his left knee stiffened in the days after the game, and he couldn't straighten his leg early last week, missing the entire week of practice.
"Actually, I was surprised that he played," quarterback Jason Campbell said. "If you looked at him earlier in the week or looked at him Friday, you would have thought no way. It just goes to show the toughness of the guy, how much he really is willing to be out there with his teammates and fight through all the pain and everything he was going through. . . . I kept asking him sometime was he all right, he kept saying he was fine, he was ready to go. Even in the huddle, he was still just acting like the normal Clinton. You couldn't tell if the guy really was hurt."
But Portis's injury became an issue in the fourth quarter. Backup Ladell Betts, who had missed three games with his own knee sprain, returned last night, but aggravated his injury just before the end of the third quarter.
"I really don't know what happened, I don't know if it got twisted or hit funny or what, but it just aggravated," said Betts, who said his knee was "not even close" to being 100 percent even before it was re-injured.
"It felt good enough to where I felt like I could go out here with my teammates and try to push through it," Betts said, but he didn't return in the fourth quarter and was walking gingerly after the game.
With Betts out, Portis was slow to get up during Washington's final drive, but after missing one play, he came back in.
"I know [I'll be sore], but I'll worry about that when it get here," Portis said. "I think I had an opportunity to get [out] and help my teammates, so I needed to be out there."
And his teammates appreciated the effort. The pass game was hurt by sacks and the inability to find open receivers, but teammates said that Portis's effort and work rate had not changed despite the injury.
"He certainly looked good as he ran past me a few times," guard Pete Kendall said. "He was running the ball downhill, particularly on that first drive, and he didn't seem much worse for the wear. I'm sure he was, but he looked good."
"I knew he was gonna play," fullback Mike Sellers said. "I know C.P. I know how he is. He's a fighter, he's not just going to sit out. C.P. did what C.P. can do when he was given the opportunity. He's always gonna be a fighter, he's always gonna play hard."
Redskins Coach Jim Zorn said that Portis's conditioning was likely affected from missing a week of practice, and television cameras showed him with an oxygen mask after halftime. He has lost the NFL rushing lead, and his team has lost two straight games. If the offense is to right itself, Portis will likely be part of the solution.
"He's a tough-nosed guy, he really is," center Casey Rabach said. "Anytime Clinton can go, it adds another dimension to this team. It's very unlikely that he was 100 percent, but we'll take him any way we can get him. Definitely a morale booster. Anytime we can get Clinton out on the field is good for us."