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Running Into His Twilight
Tailbacks Rarely Have Long Careers. Can Portis Buck the Trend?

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Work began Saturday at Redskins Park, and work, for the moment, meant Clinton Portis jogged backwards, just loosening up in a line with his teammates. Fans along the sideline howled his name, mere movement by the team's star running back enough to get them going in the early-morning heat, and he raised his right hand by way of acknowledgment.

At that point, with the work started, Portis was just two weeks removed from a 10-day sojourn to, of all places, Berlin, where what they call football is soccer, where he could think not of the work but of the pleasure, where he would be neither recognized nor harassed nor asked about how much he would practice or whether he really gets along with Coach Jim Zorn.

"I mean, think about the Berlin Wall," Portis said Saturday after practice, thinking back on his trip. "Seeing that, seeing all the shooting towers, and how far away everything was built from it, that's a lot of land to cross. It's obvious to spot you trying to run across there. Just the sacrifice to get across, man."

There is no more obvious player to spot, in the crosshairs of the Redskins' fan base and its front office and its coaching staff, than Clinton Portis. And the question that's so often asked about one of Washington's most complex players is simple: Will he make the sacrifice?

"Don't rest me," Portis said.

"He worked really hard," Zorn said.

"I just see more effort in practice," offensive coordinator Sherman Smith said.

These are the stories that dominate training camps from coast to coast each August, stories of changed attitudes and renewed commitments and blah blah blah. With Portis, though, they seem to be annual events, because he is enormously important to the Redskins' success, because no player in their locker room has Portis's penchant for drama -- and, therefore, scrutiny -- and because his opinion has, on occasion, differed with that of his coaches.

Portis understands, and perhaps even enjoys, the fact that he can be the fulcrum of the entire organization. "I guess the 'Disgruntled Portis' headlines sell," he said, smiling. And after a season in which he made the Pro Bowl for the first time in his five years as a Redskin, after he clashed with Zorn and then apparently made up with him, he decided the best way to clear his mind for 2009 -- his eighth year in the league -- was to take a transatlantic flight to visit a new city, by himself. No family. No entourage. Just him.

"It's to get away, man," he said. "Knowing the season was coming up, I think it served its purpose. I knew I wouldn't be doing any football-related activities, I wouldn't be watching no news. That's what I did. I got away, and I enjoyed myself."

Goodness knows the work, and the working relationships, are not always enjoyable. Portis's offseason was an extension of his 2008, when Zorn gave him the ball 342 times and he gained 1,487 yards, fourth most in the league. The season, though, was split neatly in two halves -- an average of 118 yards over the first eight games, 68 yards over the final eight.

So in the offseason, the coaching staff turned to Portis and again asked him to consider his work habits, both in season and out of it. Portis spent most of his time in Virginia, at Redskins Park, working out. But given the issues of the previous season -- when Portis publicly questioned Zorn's approach, at one point sarcastically referring to him as a "genius" -- the coaching staff wanted to make sure they felt out their featured back about each and every detail. After one June practice session, Smith and Portis walked off the field together and plopped down on a bench outside the building that houses the locker room. For nearly 20 minutes, they went back and forth -- communicating, if not agreeing.

"It's like, man, you're not getting through," Smith said later. "That old statement: 'A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.' It's one of those. When he says, 'Yeah, I've had success; look what I've done the last so many years,' what are you going to do? What are you going to say?"

But the staff stayed on it, Portis and coaches said, talking about the work and what might come from it. The result, all of three days into camp, has been positive.

"Maybe what he was used to doing was just pacing himself, running the ball and going 10 yards with it, and coming back," Smith said. "Now, we've asked him to go 20 yards with the ball, and he's going 20 -- or further. He's just working at a higher level of intensity than he has before, than he's used to."

That, of course, is all well and good in August. But some in the Redskins' operation believe that Portis now understands how good habits can lead to better performance. "He may not tell you that," said Vinny Cerrato, the club's executive vice president of football operations. "But I think he believes that."

"Five or six years ago, I wouldn't have really gave a damn," Portis said. "I probably would have just left [in the offseason]. But now, [I'm] eight years into the league, and understanding my window [is] not that long."

There is, then, a small acknowledgement that 1,400-yard seasons aren't simply there for the taking, especially after he turns 28 on Sept. 1. Portis, LaDainian Tomlinson, Barry Sanders and Eric Dickerson are the only players to begin their careers with six 1,250-yard seasons in their first seven years in the NFL. But the expiration dates on running backs are notorious for their swift and brutal approach. What, then, might Portis's window be?

"I probably got a great five years left in me," he said.

The evidence does not suggest that the next five years will be as productive as the last five. Consider that of the nine most-used running backs in 2004, Portis's first year with the Redskins, six are out of football. Portis and San Diego's Tomlinson are the only players who remain starters, and even Tomlinson is losing time to the young, spry Darren Sproles. Cerrato, though, said he does not see a change in Portis from the day he arrived.

"I think he's the same guy he's been," Cerrato said. "He's still the explosive, competitive guy. He's just been consistent. Last year, he had almost 1,500 yards. So how can you say, 'Here's the drop-off?' I think the drop-off came when we got injured on the offensive line" in the second half of last year.

History, though, indicates the drop-off with running backs comes as the years and the carries pile up, and no back who has played in each of the last five seasons has averaged more than Portis's 21 carries a game. In fact, of the 26 players in history who have rushed for more than Portis's 9,202 career yards, only six have had seasons of at least 1,487 yards after their 28th birthdays -- Walter Payton, Sanders and O.J. Simpson (twice); Curtis Martin and Jim Brown (once each); and Tiki Barber, who did it four times. But before Barber turned 28, he had only 933 career carries. Portis has 2,052.

Yet there cannot be, coaches said, a pre-determined number of carries for Portis at the beginning of the season. "What is the carry that takes him over the top, that makes him tired or whatever?" Zorn said, acknowledging he'll turn to Portis again and again if need be.

"He knows his body," Cerrato said. "Clinton knows it best. And he plays with a lot of pain."

The idea, though, is to get Portis into the fourth quarter of games, as well as into the final month of the season, in less pain, which would perhaps make him more productive. Thus, enter Ladell Betts, the eighth-year back who has served as Portis's backup during Portis's entire stint in Washington.

"I've been told that I will play more," Betts said as camp opened. How, exactly, that works, and how Portis responds to perhaps sitting on the bench for a series or two or on third downs, will be an important theme when the regular season begins Sept. 13 at the New York Giants.

"Maybe he plays more on third down," Zorn said of Betts. "I'm trying to figure out the formula, and I don't have it down yet. But we're working in those terms."

Whatever the roles, coaches said Portis and Betts would know them before the season started, that the conversations would be constant. Zorn knows by now that Portis might say anything at any time. He opened camp Thursday by saying players bristled against a Friday night curfew on last year's season-ending trip to San Francisco, which Zorn said "wasn't a major issue."

"I think we have a very good relationship, but that's because we have communicated," Zorn said. "Even all the stuff about us having an incident, that's just us trying to communicate, trying to be up front with each other and knowing how each other feels. I'm trying to anticipate some of those issues before they even rise up."

Portis has rarely, if ever, had an issue with the Redskins' upper management, with Cerrato or owner Daniel Snyder, and Cerrato said Saturday he has never been bothered by anything Portis has said. "You want them to be themselves," Cerrato said. For Portis, on Friday morning, that meant chatting with Cerrato on the sidelines during a down moment at practice, a position that is hardly rare for him. Cerrato said Joe Gibbs, the former coach who endorsed the trade that brought Portis here from Denver, called Portis "the assistant GM" because of his vocal opinions about the team's make-up.

"He'll call me a lot before the draft, before free agency, talk about guys," Cerrato said. "He's into it. He knows who's on the team. He knows who the players are around the league. He likes all that. He likes personnel stuff."

That, though, is not part of his work, not for now. Saturday morning, Portis left the practice field, head steaming, dripping with sweat, the hard work right there to be seen.

"I can't do things my way," he said, and he headed toward his fan base, stuck behind a fence. He signed autographs, hats and shirts and footballs and programs. And when he got near the end of the line, he took off one black-and-yellow high-top cleat, signed it, and tossed it into the crowd. The other one soon followed. Then, the Redskins' globe-trotting, pot-stirring star shuffled up a hill in his stocking feet, his work for the day done, his work for the season just beginning.

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