Thomas Boswell on Clinton Portis and Jim Zorn

If anyone can make sense of what's going on between Clinton Portis and Jim Zorn, it's Wilbon and Kornheiser. Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

For NFL coaches, honesty is the worst policy. Their rule of thumb, almost to a man, is: Try everything else first. The truth is always a Hail Mary.

But every rule has its exception. Meet Jim Zorn. From the day he arrived to coach the Redskins, he's said what's on his mind, in detail, with footnotes. He loves analysis and nuance. He's a perfectionist, even when it comes to his own opinions. Somewhere, he went wrong. Maybe a blitzing linebacker broke the fib button on his lips long ago.

Even about his best player, superstar running back Clinton Portis, Zorn has always told the truth, the whole truth and, maybe, quite a bit more of the truth than circumstances required.

Now, he's paying the price. Or, maybe not. Maybe he's in the process of proving that candor can work.

Either way, we're going to get an answer in the last three weeks of this season about the blunt-spoken approach to dealing with egocentric 1,500-yard rushers. Preliminary results from the blast sight look catastrophic.

By now, you've heard the casualty report from Portis's eruption yesterday on John Thompson's radio show. How often does the transcript of a star ripping his coach run 800 words? How do I cut the legs out from under thee, dear coach, let me count the ways? But there's background here.

Zorn has, inadvertently or to show his authority, been getting Portis's goat since training camp. Instead of simply praising Portis for staying in town for offseason workouts, Zorn pointed out that Portis had an "extrinsic motivation" for his nobility; he was negotiating a new contract with $16 million up front. So the workouts helped Portis get ready for a superior season, but they also made C.P. a whole lot richer. Was that last point too much information?

In October, when Portis took himself out of a game in Detroit with an equipment problem, then put himself back in -- something Joe Gibbs allowed the last four years -- Zorn blew up at Portis on the sideline in a face-to-face yelling match. Rookie coach vs. eventual 10,000-yard rusher? Or former pretty-good NFL quarterback who never got, or expected, special treatment vs. all-NFL diva?

Then, two weeks ago, Portis mentioned, self-servingly but accurately, that he'd almost been knocked unconscious in a game and had "blood running down both my arms and my legs." A day later, Zorn quipped, "Was it gushing?"

The last cut was the deepest. With the Redskins down 17-0 in the second half in Baltimore on Sunday night, Zorn benched Portis for the rest of the game. Afterward, most coaches, if not all, would cover the back of their star. Okay, they'd lie. They'd invent a minor injury. Or they'd point out the 17-point deficit dictated that Ledell Betts, the best pass catcher out of the backfield, was needed.

Instead, Zorn came dangerously close to his view of the truth. Portis had missed lots of practices and wasn't as prepared to identify and pick up blitzes, or run precise and often-practiced pass routes as Betts. So the coach benched his star.

Zorn didn't use exactly those words. But that's what Portis, and his teammates, heard. When the team watched films on Monday, Zorn didn't seek out Portis for a kiss-and-make-up chat as many coaches would have. So, by yesterday, the fuse reached the ego dynamite. The various bits and pieces of coach and player are still coming back to earth.

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