Outgoing Redskins coach says Portis 'could've worked harder'

By Jason Reid and Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; D03

As Stump Mitchell leaves the Washington Redskins' coaching staff for a new job, one unsightly mark obscures what he accomplished during two seasons as running backs coach.

Mitchell is the first Redskins assistant to notify the team that he won't be returning next season and says he has accepted the head coaching job at Southern University. He was planning to make the long drive to Baton Rouge, La., Monday night with the knowledge that he never got running back Clinton Portis to achieve his potential as a Redskin.

"That's the only disappointment that I'll have. The fact that I couldn't persuade Clinton to do it a different way," Mitchell said Monday. "I want Clinton to be the best back in the league. But in order for that to happen, you have to prepare for it. But I don't know if that's what Clinton wants to do."

It'll be a matter for a new position coach, reportedly Bobby Turner, one of Shanahan's long-time assistants in Denver and long considered one of the league's top running backs coaches. The Redskins have offered Turner the title of associate head coach, according to the Denver Post, a key reason the Broncos decided to allow him to interview in Washington after initially declining the Redskins' request. Turner was an assistant for 15 years in Denver, where he coached six running backs, including Portis, who posted 1,000-yard seasons.

Portis's future in Washington could be one of the most pressing decisions that new head coach Mike Shanahan and Turner must make. Portis is coming off a concussion that ended his year midway through the season and is dogged by serious questions about his abilities. By Week 1 of the 2010 season, Portis will be 29 and he has had just one 100-yard rushing game in his last 13.

Asked if Portis's practice habits and offseason conditioning have held him back, Mitchell said: "That's a slam dunk. Clinton could've worked harder."

"He's got to do that," Mitchell continued, "and [owner Daniel Snyder] has to understand that that's what has to be done. In order for the Redskins to be successful, that's what Clinton has to do. He has to change the way he's done things in the past in order for them to be successful as a team."

Mitchell made clear his comments didn't stem from any animosity -- "I love Clinton," he said, "trust me" -- and noted that he thinks Portis can again perform like the running back who posted 1,500-yard seasons in his first two years in the league.

"Those days are not behind Clinton, if he prepares, in my opinion," Mitchell said. "Others may see it differently."

Portis has worked with just two running backs coaches since joining the Redskins in 2004. Mitchell's concerns echo those voiced by his predecessor, Earnest Byner, before the 2008 season.

"He does have some growing to do as far as his approach to practice, preparation, conditioning, being able to work through injuries during practice -- all of those things, at least when I was there," said Byner, now the Tennessee Titans' running backs coach. "I knew him as a guy who needed to have a different approach to the game. . . . Everybody should be held, everybody should hold themselves, to a certain standard. You get a lot of people who don't, you also need to understand how that dynamic affects the entire picture, not just the individual."

At his introductory news conference last week, Shanahan made no commitments to Portis or any other players, but made clear that he thinks proper offseason conditioning is vital for a veteran running back.

Parting ways with Portis could be a costly proposition. He has a contract for next season set to pay him $7.2 million, most of which is guaranteed. He is also due roster and workout bonuses totaling about $507,000. If the Redskins were to release Portis and another team signed him, the amount the Redskins owe him would be reduced. But if they released him before June, the team could still face a cap hit of as much as $14.8 million.

Portis was the biggest disappointment for the team's sputtering ground game this season. The Redskins had to place their top two running backs on injured reserve and cycled through four starters. For the season, the Redskins' rushing attack was ranked No. 27 in the league, averaging just 94.4 yards per game. Their eight rushing touchdowns tied for 25th in the NFL.

Though the offensive line changed on almost a weekly basis, Mitchell blamed himself -- not his running backs -- for the lack of production.

"I didn't coach as well, and they didn't play as well. As a result, the season is the way it is. The blocking, in my opinion, was better than the production that we got from my position," Mitchell said. "I just feel that way."

Mitchell was offered the head coaching job at Southern, which fired Pete Richardson on Dec. 31. The school's athletic director, Greg LaFleur, was a teammate of Mitchell's with the St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals.

Mitchell initially told school officials he wanted to wait and see what Shanahan intended to do with his new coaching staff. But Mitchell spoke with Shanahan on Sunday and the two met Monday morning. Mitchell said he turned in his report on the 2009 running backs and decided he couldn't wait any longer.

"I could've waited just like all the other coaches. But Southern can't wait," said Mitchell, one of just a handful of coaches hired by Zorn. "They're already behind in the recruiting process."

Shanahan has not yet fired any coaches from Jim Zorn's staff, nor has he hired any replacements. He began interviewing Zorn's staff last Thursday, left town for the weekend and continued interviews Monday.

"I'm confident that Bruce Allen and Coach Shanahan are going to make a great combination," Mitchell said. "I'm confident the Washington Redskins are in great hands, and I would've enjoyed joining them. But I have an opportunity at Southern."

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