By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008
A day after lashing out at Washington Redskins Coach Jim Zorn in a radio interview, running back Clinton Portis and Zorn said they resolved their differences yesterday at Redskins Park as the struggling team tried to remain focused in an effort to salvage its season.
Zorn and Portis met after a team meeting before practice, during which Zorn -- prompted by Portis's pointed criticism of Zorn's communication and decision making during his weekly appearance on ESPN 980's "The John Thompson Show" -- encouraged his players to "stay together" despite a 1-4 slide that has dropped the Redskins (7-6) into last place in the NFC East and behind four teams for one of the conference's two wild-card berths.
Washington's team captains also led a players-only session earlier in the morning.
Quickly encircled by reporters and TV cameramen after practice, Portis often made light of his harsh comments that stemmed from Zorn's decision to bench him during the second half of Sunday's 24-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Zorn said he didn't play the running back because Portis missed significant practice time the previous week with injuries.
Zorn and Portis shook hands and laughed after they emerged from their meeting, according to players who observed the interaction, and Portis said he was "cool with everything."
Portis was asked if the matter potentially could be a distraction with the Redskins beginning preparations to face the Cincinnati Bengals (1-11-1) on Sunday.
"Uh, a distraction from what?" Portis said. "We've done lost four out of our last five games, so if it's a distraction, what else can we do? We can't do nothing but win, now.
"I wasn't hoping to accomplish nothing. It was something on my chest that I needed to get off, and I did. So now that was yesterday; today, I'm at work. We're getting ready to play the Cincinnati Bengals."
Similarly, Zorn preferred to move forward after Portis's latest outburst provided another challenging situation in the most trying stretch of his brief head coaching career.
"He was confused about where he stood," Zorn said. "The real issue is, 'Just come in and talk.' I really believe that as coaches, if players don't come in, if they don't actually be proactive and come to us, sometimes it's hard to read, 'cause everybody's upset about a lot. This has been something that I think, 'Has he not done this in the past?'
"That's a way that he's operated. He doesn't need to operate that way, in my mind. He feels like he's stuck, and part of it is, and this is what I addressed our football team with, it's all about losing. Winning doesn't bring this out. Losing does. And it's nothing we deserve. Nobody deserves that, but that's what losing does. Everybody gets upset. Everybody has a feeling. Everybody has an opinion. That's our problem. You know what remedies all this? Winning. That's what we want to do."
Portis, the NFL's third-leading rusher with 1,260 yards, has been hampered by an array of physical problems this season, including knee, hip and neck injuries. In explaining his reasoning for leaning heavily on backup running back Ladell Betts against the Ravens, Zorn said Betts was more precisely releasing from pass protection into route running. Those comments infuriated Portis, who in the offseason was guaranteed about $20 million through 2010 as part of a restructured contract that helped the Redskins get under the salary cap.
"Anybody knows that when you have a problem, if you need to go public, first take it to the head coach, first take it to the position coach, first take it to the offensive coordinator, and believe me, we're all willing to talk to anybody on our football team," Zorn said. "There's just a protocol. I shouldn't have to try to seek that out in my mind. You know: 'Are you okay? Are we good?' Because part of that is just emotion. I think he had some legitimate concerns, I really do. And he had some legitimate confusion. But the thing that I tried to express to him is: 'Just come in. No problem.' "
Because of the strong veteran presence in the locker room, Portis's comments won't derail the Redskins as they push to maintain their slim playoff hopes, several team leaders said.
"We have too many leaders on the team" for that to happen, wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said. "From Z-Man's standpoint, he's not going to allow it to be a distraction, and Clinton understands how important it is for us to get focused for this week. We can get it washed and get it taken care of.
"It happens. It's part of the league. You get a guy, you get a coach, flip a coin, it's going to happen. And when it happens, you just hope you get it taken care of. You try to feel [the player's] pain, feel the coach's pain, or whoever's pain, but you never jump in that mixed bag because you don't know what it is. You don't know both sides, you don't know how it all came about, you don't know why the communication wasn't there."
Said quarterback Jason Campbell: "It's only a disruption or a distraction if guys let it be. We can control that."
Owner Daniel Snyder and Portis are uniquely close, and Vinny Cerrato, Washington's executive vice president of football operations, also shares a strong bond with the seven-year veteran, who has had more demands put on him in practice than under former coach Joe Gibbs.
"I love Mr. Snyder, Mr. Snyder love me, that's my man," Portis said. "You know, he kept me around, him and Vinny."
Cerrato strongly endorsed Zorn to Snyder after Gibbs retired in January. Cerrato declined to comment about Portis's criticism of Zorn, a team spokesman said.
Considered the team's most outspoken player, Portis in September said he dreamed of switching places with another elite running back who played behind a different line and in a different system -- for one week -- so people could compare the results. Some of Portis's teammates privately expressed disappointment about those comments because they were perceived as being critical of coaches and players.
"We've been through this before," center Casey Rabach said. "Things have been said that shouldn't have been said, that should have been handled behind closed doors. You just let those two take care of it, and we just have to focus on Cincinnati. Can you just block everything out? You'd like to say yes, but obviously there's going to be stuff that creeps in your mind.
"Any distraction that comes about, you've got to weigh your options and ask yourself, 'Is this really worth worrying about?' Or is Cincinnati that much more important to you. Maybe some guys have some issues, and they'll be torn between the right answer there, so I can only speak for myself and say we just need to get to 8-6 and go from there. That's what should be the most important thing."
Staff writers Jason La Canfora, Barry Svrluga and Dan Steinberg contributed to this report.