Zorn-Portis Clash A Predictable Combustion

By Jason La Canfora
Saturday, December 13, 2008

To many around Redskins Park, it always seemed like an imperfect marriage, the coupling of the outspoken running back who had been coddled and was accustomed to taking himself out of games under Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, and the rookie head coach with a unique bent for candor and unflinching critiques of his players. Sprinkle in a sputtering offense, key injuries and a five-week slide to the periphery of the playoff spectrum, and this week's eruption of Clinton Portis toward Jim Zorn was predictable.

When the team was surging to a 6-2 start and Portis was tearing up the NFL in rushing, success masked the combustive dynamics between the contrasting personalities. After all, Portis had criticized the offensive line and blocking scheme in September, only to emerge as an early MVP candidate. Zorn had repeatedly mentioned players' "execution" issues, but they responded by racing into playoff contention.

As the season has deteriorated, however, the private bristling of many players toward Zorn's increasingly ineffective scheme increased, and even Zorn was not shocked that Portis went public with his grumbling. Before the season, Zorn's staff had discussed how to handle Portis with one of Gibbs's former assistants. "He doesn't show respect," the former assistant said.

Over the years, many Redskins have come to consider Portis's periodic outbursts as self-serving, and his practice habits and cozy relationship with ownership bothersome. "Ain't nothing we haven't seen before," said one Redskins veteran, who did not want to be identified so as not to escalate the incident. "Whether he's dressing up [in costumes] or whatever, he loves to be the center of attention, and that's worked for him."

But the kernel of Portis's most recent diatribe, that Zorn should have pointed the public finger inward a bit more, nonetheless resonated in the locker room. Some players believe Zorn, whether or not he truly believes that his system is responsible for the offensive rot, needs to take more of the public blame, as Gibbs continually did the past few seasons.

Because of his huge contract, Portis is one of the few players who can call out Zorn publicly. When owner Daniel Snyder and vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato gave Portis his fourth new deal in five years last winter -- and about $20 million more guaranteed -- they surely wanted him to become more of a team leader, and they probably figured the Pro Bowler might bite his lip with greater frequency.

Instead, Portis appears emboldened, and for all of his veiled threats about "severing ties," the veteran knows full well his cap figure makes that nearly impossible. He's just as aware of his status with Snyder, with the owner casually explaining to Zorn that Portis tends to do this kind of thing ("This is Clinton," Zorn said the owner told him Tuesday night). And Portis, all smiles and chuckles when meeting reporters a day after starting this mess, crowed Wednesday: "I love Mr. Snyder, Mr. Snyder love me. That's my man." And neither Snyder nor Cerrato has offered even a hint of a public reprimand in defense of their coach.

Neither Zorn nor Portis apologized or expressed any public regret for the things they said or did leading up to Portis's explosive remarks, and neither is going to change his identity to placate the other. Zorn, 55, maintains that there is nothing contrived about his openness in explaining his decisions and discussing errors by players. To kowtow to Portis, 27, as his predecessor did, would run counter to that. Zorn has never spared his most important pupil, quarterback Jason Campbell, so why should discussing Portis's issues practicing or getting into pass routes be off-limits?

Portis, third in the NFL in rushing yards, said on his paid radio appearance that "I guarantee you won't see me make no mistakes" in a playback of Sunday's game film. But the copy reviewed by the coaches indicated he was involved in a failed blitz pickup that led directly to the interception on the opening drive. Then his fumble was returned for a touchdown and a quick 14-0 deficit that triggered the need to abandon the run (i.e., Portis) much earlier than Zorn had hoped.

(They also figured that $20 million bought a true home-run hitter, one who makes safeties miss and bursts into the end zone, yet Portis has rushed 266 times without a carry of more than 31 yards, and a modest seven touchdowns. Portis and the lumbering Jamal Lewis of the Browns are the only rushers in the NFL's top 20 without a carry of at least 32 yards. While 13 of the league's top 26 runners have scored touchdowns of at least 39 yards, Portis's longest scoring run is nine yards. He's having an excellent season, but hardly above reproach.)

Zorn clearly underestimated the sensitivity of his subject -- he probably should have known better by now -- with Portis taking umbrage that the coach did not seek him out after leaving him to get acquainted with a space heater on national television Sunday night, while fellow University of Miami stars Ed Reed and Ray Lewis led Baltimore to a victory.

The immediate damage should be minimal. Zorn won't hold a grudge. He proved that in Week 8, when he and Portis exchanged heated words on the sideline in Detroit, and Zorn then fed him the ball with abandon. But the potential for future strife is high.

There will come a time again when Zorn and his staff prefer reserve Ladell Betts or fullback Mike Sellers as their featured runner for any number of reasons. Portis, even $20 million richer, sees no reason not to respond in his typical fashion. After all, it's just Clinton being Clinton.

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