Dick Vermeil predicts Larry Johnson will push Clinton Portis 'right out of a job'

Despite being two years younger than Johnson, Clinton Portis has 755 more carries and is coming off of a season-ending concussion.
Despite being two years younger than Johnson, Clinton Portis has 755 more carries and is coming off of a season-ending concussion. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

While popular opinion might suggest that running back Larry Johnson was brought to town to back up the Washington Redskins' perennial starter Clinton Portis, one of Johnson's former coaches has a bold prediction.

"He will take over the running back position," said Dick Vermeil, who coached Johnson in Kansas City from 2003 to '05. "That's what I think. He'll push that guy right out of a job. Larry Johnson will work all week -- he'll work Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday -- and he'll make you start him on Sundays."

Though Johnson was often a chief source of headaches, two of his former Kansas City coaches sang his praises this week, both dismissing the notion that at 30, Johnson is no longer an effective NFL running back. In fact, both see favorable circumstances in Washington that could help Johnson return to Pro Bowl form.

"His back is against the wall, and for him, that's when he's at his best," said Herm Edwards, who coached in Kansas City from 2006 to '08. "Most people think he's done, he's finished, he's too old. That actually helps him. He wants to prove people wrong. This is his third team in two years, he knows this could be it. You don't need more incentive than that."

The Redskins signed Johnson last week to a three-year contract. Portis, who missed the final eight games last season after suffering a season-ending concussion, returns for his ninth NFL season. He's been the Redskins' starter since joining the team in 2004. While Johnson has spoken about the pair operating like a tandem, Vermeil sees much more potential.

"I think they got a great steal in this guy," Vermeil said. "If they have any sort of offensive line, I really believe he'll be the starting running back there, and he'll do very well. If anyone thinks it's some union job and a guy gets to start just because he's the incumbent, nuh-uh. Larry will make him work. [Portis] will have to fight to even hope to keep his job."

There are several factors that would seem to make Johnson an unlikely starter -- or even a consistent impact player -- in the league again.

For starters, Johnson has made as many headlines for his off-the-field transgressions as anything he's done on the field in recent years. He's complained about playing time, threatened a training camp holdout and has been arrested four times for domestic violence-related incidents. He was released by the Chiefs midway through last season for comments he made about coaches on Twitter and for using an epithet around members of the media.

Despite all of this, Edwards and Vermeil warn against misjudging Johnson's character, even though each was left holding the mop, pulling clean-up duty after Johnson's public messes.

"This was a very productive guy who didn't handle himself right with all of his actions off the field," said Edwards, now an analyst for ESPN. "He's not a bad guy, not a bad locker room guy. He's good around the other players but often put himself in the wrong place at the right time, if that makes sense."

Vermeil was the Chiefs' coach when the team drafted Johnson, the son of McDonough High School's former state-title winning coach Larry Johnson Sr., in the first round out of Penn State in 2003. Though Vermeil made clear that he preferred drafting a defensive player, he also knew that he had something special in Johnson. It's a shame, he says, that Johnson's amassed only two 1,000-yard seasons in his seven-year career.

"He's sometimes his own worst enemy," Vermeil said. "He's a good person. He can, when he wants, have a tremendous work ethic."

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