By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Before practice Wednesday, Chris Cooley walked to the bulletin board near the entrance of the Washington Redskins' locker room and used a pushpin to hang a copy of an e-mail he had just received from a fan. The letter quickly erupted into a string of bawdy insults, more than two dozen angry expletives and ripped no fewer than seven players, from Jason Campbell to Clinton Portis.
"YOU [expletive] NEED TO START PLAYING WITH SOME HEART, PASSION, AND LOVE FOR THE GAME Instead out there collecting paychecks," it said. "The only team I see out there with some heart are the cheerleaders."
Just about every Redskins player knows he's ripe for scrutiny and dissection heading into the home opener against the St. Louis Rams. The Redskins know they have to improve on both sides of the ball Sunday, and for the offensive unit, that likely means getting more touches for Portis.
Asked whether he'd like to see a big game from his big running back, Coach Jim Zorn said, "I'm hip-hip-hooraying that thought."
Recent history suggests a good afternoon of touches for Portis usually means a pleasant week of basking in a win.
"Everything predicates on your run game," Campbell said.
In the Sunday's season-opening loss at the New York Giants, Portis had 62 yards. As the offense struggled to stay on the field, Portis had only 16 carries. A year ago, the Redskins were 0-4 when Portis failed to notch 20 carries. Over the course of his Redskins career, Washington is just 9-20 when he fails to carry 20 times.
And since Portis joined the team in 2004, the Redskins are 21-4 when he rushes for at least 100 yards. Last year, they were 5-1. That lone loss a season ago was against the Rams.
Told that his offense doesn't seem to go when Portis isn't pushing it, Zorn said, "I disagree with that."
Zorn envisions a well-rounded offense with multiple threats, but the Redskins have yet to show the rest of the league that those other weapons can be consistently effective.
Steve Spagnuolo, St. Louis's first-year coach, has seen plenty of Portis and the Redskins, having spent the past two seasons as defensive coordinator for the Giants and the previous eight as a defensive assistant in Philadelphia.
"He makes it go," Spagnuolo said of Portis. "And when he gets going, that offense is twice as effective. I have always had great respect for him."
Though Portis had ample opportunity, he had no intention Wednesday of complaining about his touches in New York and didn't seem concerned about his role in the offense entering Sunday's game.
"I would love to tell you I could carry this organization, I could do everything. I think we have a lot of talent and a lot of people who feel as if they're capable of helping us out," Portis said. "I can't sit and be, 'Oh, I'm being selfish. Gimme the ball, gimme the ball, gimme the ball.' You know I want the ball. The coach knows I want the ball. But if we don't have but  plays, it ain't nothing he can do about it. He called it and they gave me the ball when they can."
If the offense clicks -- and coaches and players say it's only a matter of time -- then Zorn faces a juggling act. He hopes his outside receivers will scare secondaries and wants to make sure Antwaan Randle El out of the slot and Cooley on the end both have plenty of looks, as well. But he still has to make sure Portis has his touches, as he's the only offensive cog whose performances show a direct correlation to wins and losses.
Last season, Portis averaged 110 yards through 11 games and the Redskins were 7-4. Slowed by soreness, Portis averaged fewer than 60 yards an outing down the stretch, as the Redskins lost four of their final five games.
Coaches are hoping to spare Portis from some of the wear and tear he faced late last season, by rotating backs a bit more and giving Ladell Betts more carries on third down. Still, despite a relatively light afternoon last Sunday, Portis said he woke up the next morning and felt as if he'd just had 25 to 30 carries, instead of only 16.
While Portis is comfortable with his role -- for now -- he acknowledges that coaches can be in a no-win situation when it comes to fan reaction.
"When it's just going to Clinton, Clinton, Clinton, all the callers and all the reporters are, 'Well, they need to do more. Clinton can't do it all. How long can they ride on Clinton?' " Portis said. "Now that we're trying to do more, it's like, 'Well, doing more isn't working. Give the ball back to Clinton.' We just have to stay in our scheme of things and everybody that's capable of making plays is going to make plays eventually."
West Coast offense or not, the running game is often key to opening up opportunities for those other players. Against the Giants, Washington actually got off on the right foot, as Portis ran for 34 yards on the game's first play, his longest run since November 2006.
Portis said he returned to the huddle thinking, "Ooh, 150, baby! At least!" Instead, he averaged fewer than two yards a carry the rest of the way, and the offense called only 50 plays all game. Portis had just one more touch in the first quarter and never established a rhythm out of the backfield.
"A running back has to get into it," Zorn said. "He started out like gangbusters on the first play. I thought we were going to do that more."
The offense worked out of the shotgun formation more in Week 1 than it did at many points during Zorn's first year as head coach, which he knows limits what he can do with Portis. But play-action will still be a crucial component and could provide Portis's best chance of breaking off a big run.
It's only a matter of time, Portis keeps saying. Despite what some of their fans might contend in angry letters, players are certain this offense is better than last year's. They might not have shown it at New York, but they're aiming for a better performance against a Rams defense that allowed 446 yards last week against Seattle -- including 167 on the ground.
"We got game two coming up this week," said Portis, "and hopefully this is my breakout week."