Portis Gets His Opportunity to Carry the Day

Clinton Portis looks for room to run against Tampa Bay's Tim Crowder during the second quarter.
Clinton Portis looks for room to run against Tampa Bay's Tim Crowder during the second quarter. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 2009

The breathless reports, it turns out, are simply a means to while away a Sunday morning before the NFL kicks off its games. In some cases, the personnel updates that stream across the Internet and through televisions nationwide are meaningful. In Clinton Portis's, they are not.

"You know, it's really going to be impossible to keep me off the field," Portis said Sunday night, baggy jeans covering his powerful legs, enormous round shades covering his eyes. "Y'all feed into the game-time decision, and hopefully he's going to play, and it's breaking news. Unless I got a cast or some crutches, I'm playing."

Portis played Sunday, and though his sheer numbers -- 98 yards on 25 carries, a 3.9 average in the Washington Redskins' 16-13 victory over Tampa Bay -- won't make much more than a blip across the country, they were enough to have Portis smiling broadly afterward. If the bone spurs in his ankles or the bruise on his calf bothered him, it didn't show.

"That's for afterwards," he said.

In a season that is only a month old but has already been trying, Portis hadn't carried more than 19 times in a game, and therefore had not carried the load. Last week, in a disturbing loss to the Detroit Lions, Portis carried all of 12 times, then got kicked in the calf and was unable to be on the field for the final, futile drive. He sat out of practice all week, and therefore was officially listed as questionable for the Tampa Bay game, technically a 50-50 proposition.

In other NFL cities, with other NFL running backs, that might be cause for alarm. In Washington, with Portis, it is precisely what is expected.

"With Clinton [being] nicked up, and I [am] hearing people asking questions about Clinton, I just laugh, because they should know Clinton by now," said wide receiver Santana Moss, whose days with Portis as a teammate go back to college at Miami. "He's a guy that, he doesn't need to be out here doing anything [in practice], because he thrives to be under these lights, when the time is right, and go out there and do what he needs to do. . . .

"He's one of those guys, if he's nicked, if he can't go in practice, he's not going to go in practice. But you best believe, if he gets better by Sunday, he's going to give you hell."

This was, to be sure, the most pedestrian of important performances. None of Portis's 25 runs went for more than 10 yards. He began the day with seven first-quarter carries -- an indication that Coach Jim Zorn might try to ride him against a poor Tampa Bay run defense -- but had just 19 yards to show for it.

Then, in Portis's evaluation, Zorn did something important: He stuck with him. Somehow, 98 yards, even for a man who has 25 100-yard games as a Redskin, felt special.

"The reason this game would have significance is just knowing guys wanted me to carry the team, guys wanted to put it on our back," Portis said. "I think the offensive line wanted to go out and run the ball. Guys are like, 'Come on. You got to get going.' And for the coaches to come out and stick with the run, I think it was a great feeling."

Through a spotty first three games of the season, that hadn't always been the case. But a week after the Redskins ran the ball just 14 times against the Lions, they carried a season-high 35 times against the Buccaneers.

"We love to run-block," left tackle Chris Samuels said. "It's easier." But more importantly, it might better reflect the personality of this team.

"He trusted us," Samuels said of Zorn. "He put the load on us."

After the slow start, not to mention a first half in which quarterback Jason Campbell committed three turnovers and the Redskins failed to score, Portis got going. He opened the Redskins' second touchdown drive with an eight-yard carry. When the Redskins seized the lead late in the third quarter, Portis opened the first chew-up-the-clock possession with carries of six and seven yards. And when the two-minute warning approached and the Redskins clung to a three-point lead, Portis got the ball again on third and five. He saw an opening, and he stumbled. He gained only four yards.

"I really wish I had the opportunity to get that run back," Portis said, "because I really seen where I wanted to go. I should've bounced it outside, and it was probably a home run."

Portis, this season, does not yet have a home run. He opened the year with a 34-yard scamper, and has nothing longer than 14 yards since.

But at the end of Sunday's game, with the Buccaneers trying for a final desperation drive, Portis watched from the sideline as the Redskins forced the turnover that sealed a badly needed win. When the referee signaled that the ball belonged to Washington, Portis leaped into the air, scampered to midfield and played to the crowd. His kicked calf did not bother him. His balky ankles looked completely healthy. He had no cast, no crutches, so the crowd had all the information it needed: Clinton Portis could play.

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