By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009
The buzzwords around the Washington Redskins' locker room were familiar for a struggling team that's desperate to align its level of success with its level of talent. While most players suggested it's a matter of execution, a matter of accountability or a matter of consistency, the star running back is not caught up in the hysteria or sense of urgency that surrounds Redskins Park this week.
For Clinton Portis, it's a matter of time.
"It's only a matter of time before I have a 200-yard game," Portis said. "It's only a matter of time before I have a 150-yard game. It's only a matter of time before I get two or three touchdowns. It's just the fact, when's it coming? I know it's coming. But when?"
With an ineffective rushing attack through three games, the Redskins began installing their game plan for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Wednesday, taking the practice field without their starting backfield. Nursing a calf contusion, Portis was present but wasn't wearing pads and wasn't participating. Fullback Mike Sellers sat out with bruised quadriceps.
Portis said he thought he'd be ready to play on Sunday against the Bucs, though he did reveal that he played through ankle pain the first two weeks of the season.
"I couldn't really sit in position to pass block," he said on Wednesday. "I think right now, as far as my ankles, I can run around, I can stop, I can cut. The treatment I've been getting -- the new program that we've been on -- is working great. Right now, my ankles don't have any pain."
Portis was limited in practice last week, too, and was listed as questionable entering the Lions' game. Though he started in Detroit, he did not play late in the game after getting kicked in the calf. Zorn wasn't certain on Wednesday just how much Portis might be able to practice in the days leading up to the Bucs game, but the eighth-year running back doesn't seem to think it matters.
"It's not a concern for me. I know how to go out and play without practicing. It might be an issue for you all," Portis told reporters, shortly after receiving treatment on Wednesday. "I can go out and play. I think I'm in shape. You watch me play in the game on Sunday, I think I picked up my assignment, I know my assignment. I know what I'm supposed to do, and I try to get it done."
In the first three games of the season, Portis has run for 62, 79 and 42 yards. He's yet to score a touchdown and hasn't had 20 carries in a single game. His 12 touches Sunday were the fewest of the season.
But this Sunday could be the breakout game Portis and the Redskins need. Washington is averaging 91.7 rushing yards per game; Tampa Bay is allowing more than twice that. In fact, only one team in the NFL, Houston, has been worse than the Bucs against the run thus far. Last week against the Giants, Tampa Bay's defense allowed 226 rushing yards. Ahmad Bradshaw had 104 yards and Brandon Jacobs finished with 92. After the Cowboys ran for 118 yards in the season-opener against the Bucs, the Bills totaled 218 yards on the ground in Week 2, including 163 yards from Fred Jackson.
For Portis to match that kind of success, the Redskins will have to involve him more in the game plan. Despite evidence to the contrary, in this early phase of the season, players and coaches still preach the run around Redskins Park.
"We feel we're a run team," said Sellers. "But it doesn't matter what we feel. We've got to run the plays that are called."
Zorn said Wednesday he feels the team's ground game -- ranked No. 24 in the league -- has been successful thus far. He says the game plan for the Bucs will again call for the Redskins "to run the ball and mix it up."
"That's what we do," Zorn said.
But that's not what the Redskins did against the Lions. Out of 57 offensive plays, only 14 were on the ground. While Zorn planned on passing early, it certainly didn't help the running game's cause to fall behind in the first half, forcing quarterback Jason Campbell to spend most of the second half throwing the ball.
"When you go into a game, it's not predicated on whether you run or you pass," said Campbell. "It's pretty much, you try to attack what the defense is doing. In certain situations against Detroit, in a lot of ways, we thought we could move the ball through the air a little more. We did it for the most part. We just didn't get a lot of points on the board or enough points to win the game."
Zorn has consistently defended his play-calling this season but did acknowledge Wednesday that he wishes the team would've had more opportunities to run the ball in Detroit.
"We had 18 plays in the first half. I called five runs," said Zorn. "We got better in our run game in the second half. I wish I would've called more in the first half -- or had more to call."
It isn't only Portis who could benefit from more early touches. While Zorn and Campbell often talk about finding an early rhythm, the offensive linemen say their comfort level rises when the offense establishes the run quickly.
"We like to pound guys," said left tackle Chris Samuels. "I don't particularly like sitting on my heels, you know, pass protecting. I'd rather come off and hit the guy. Whatever he calls, we got to man up and do it. You can't just run the ball in this league, you can't just throw the ball. You've got to do both."
Players and coaches know that one benefits the other, which is why Portis's health is so important. With Portis, diagnosing injuries isn't always a simple task. For starters, he's adamantly said in the past that he avoids treating pain with aspirin and medication, and he doesn't generally go out of his way to discuss injuries.
In the team's locker room at Redskins Park, wide receiver Santana Moss is seated right next to Portis. The two players are former college teammates and close friends, but even Moss doesn't always know exactly how his locker neighbor is feeling.
"There's a lot of things I might know about Clinton, but there's a lot of things that you don't ever really understand because he's going through it," Moss said. "I don't really know what he's going through. We don't talk about that. We talk about other things."
In the past, Portis hasn't been shy when it comes to voicing his discontent, sarcastically calling Zorn a "genius" last December. But though he's had opportunities this week to second-guess coaches, Portis has defended the play-calling and insisted the team is close to turning the corner.
"You can't look and say, 'Oh, this a win, this a win, that's a win.' But when you've got the opportunity to win games and you lose them," Portis said. "We talked about that after the Rams. It was like, 'Oh, you guys played the Rams so close and almost lost.' But we won. Then we go to Detroit and we lose. It's like, 'If only you all would've won by one.' Now that we lost, it's okay if we would've barely beat the Lions. It's always going to be something."
In a locker room of veterans, Pro Bowlers and captains, it was the outspoken Portis who tried to offer the voice of reason. He said it's not a time to panic, not for himself and not for the team.
"I would love to have a 150-yard Sunday," Portis said. "But if I don't, I'm not going to say I'm quitting football. I'm going to go out and play and if I get it, fine; if I don't, back to the drawing board."