Past means nothing to Redskins star running backs Clinton Portis, Willie Parker and Larry Johnson

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010; 12:17 AM

Clinton Portis doesn't look like an old man, and in virtually any other profession, he would be perceived to be on the rise rather than the decline. Corporate titans, master electricians, orchestra conductors - all would face questions about the promise of their futures, not the glory of their pasts.

What Portis does every morning this time of year - banging into men who outweigh him by 100 pounds, then slipping loose and sprinting 25 more yards downfield - isn't for the aged.

"I know what I've done," Portis said one day last week, "and I know what I can do - still."

In Portis's new world, though, only half of that sentence matters: What can he still do? When he said it, he had just finished a conversation with Larry Johnson, their hands waving in the air, explaining which way each had cut on a certain play. The pair had just completed a morning workout in which they shared carries with Willie Parker. Each of those three backs has been to the Pro Bowl twice. Each has carried the ball more than 330 times in a season. And each is here, with the Washington Redskins, trying to win a job, trying to prove they know what they can do-- still.

"When you first hear it, you're like, 'Okay, Clinton is here'," said Terrell Davis, who won two Super Bowls with Denver, where he ran for new Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan, and is now a coaching intern here. "Larry Johnson comes in, Willie Parker, and the first thing you think is, 'Wow, how is that going to work? These guys are used to being the No. 1 running backs on their respective teams, so how's that going to work?'"

In the midst of the maelstrom surrounding defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, that question is one the Redskins must answer: How is the running back situation going to work? A week into camp, it's too early to tell.

Since Shanahan traded him from the Broncos to the Redskins before the 2004 season, Portis has entered training camp in Ashburn as the unquestioned alpha back, whether he was coming off an injury or coming off the Pro Bowl. Now, Johnson, a former star in Kansas City and Parker, who was the same in Pittsburgh, are here. Both are pushing Portis in a way that other competitors come and gone -- Ladell Betts or T.J. Duckett or Rock Cartwright -- could not.

As Johnson said, "I don't know anybody, football or not football, [who wants] to come in and say, 'Hey, I just want to be third best.'"

So back to Davis's original question: How's that going to work?

"It's only one ball," Parker said. "So therefore, you know [there] probably can't be enough room for all of us. That's the game. That's the way it is. Therefore, you got to go out and compete. . . .There ain't even enough balls in practice."

Turner: the team's sage

In these initial weeks of training camp, before preseason games begin, the Redskins are trying to quantify what, for most people, can't be quantified. They must determine how much each back has left.

This task falls not only to Shanahan, but to running backs coach Bobby Turner. Turner, dressed each day in a gray sweat suit - whether it is 80 degrees or 100, whether the sun shines or the rain falls - is something of a sage of the running game, with 15 years coaching the position in the NFL, 34 years in coaching total. A fan or reporter might watch a series of practices and be unsure whether Portis or Johnson or Parker has worn down. Turner believes he is different.

"When I see it," Turner said, "I know it immediately."

He is looking for it now, in practice. But there are some inescapable facts. When the season opens Sept. 12 against Dallas, Portis and Parker will be 29, Johnson 30. There is one other team with three running backs that old in training camp - New England, with Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk, both 34, and 33-year-old Sammy Morris. But such a situation is clearly an anomaly. Nineteen teams entered training camp with no running backs as old as Portis, the youngest of the Redskins' three veterans.

Those are just the birth certificates. In determining how much a back has left, the work load may be more important. Taylor, Faulk and Morris have combined for 4,081 carries - a paltry total compared to the 5,165 compiled by Portis, Johnson and Parker, who rank fourth, eighth and ninth, respectively, in career rushing attempts among active players. No other team enters training camp with even two backs among the top 14.

Part of the past, too, is injury and, for Johnson, other kinds of strife. Portis missed the final eight games of 2009 with a concussion. Over the past three seasons, Parker missed time with a fractured fibula, a bad knee and a balky toe. Johnson sat out half the 2007 season with a foot problem, was suspended three times during his seven years in Kansas City and was cut midway through last season, which he finished with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Yet all boast about what's to come. "I hear the naysayers, and I know they don't know about me," Portis said.

But in 2009, the three combined to rush for one touchdown. In their most honest moments, they admit it's difficult, in the midst of such competition, to provide realistic self-evaluations.

"You would never see it yourself," Parker said. "Other people have to tell you, 'You're not running the same. You're not this. You're not that.' You would never see it. . . . It's kind of crazy, because reporters used to ask, 'How you feeling?' 'Oh, I'm good.' But you're playing tricks with your mind."

Moments later, when Parker is asked how he feels at this stage in his career, he doesn't hesitate with his reply. "Great," he said. Portis and Johnson's answers are precisely the same.

"I feel great," Portis said.

"I'm great," Johnson said.

Forget what history suggests about backs who approach or surpass age 30 with so much mileage on their odometers. There is a certain air of defiance in each of their voices.

"You'll know when you're satisfied, and I'm not satisfied," Johnson said. "So I won't let my body give out on me, or let my brain give out on me."

The brain, then, must be caught up in what's ahead, not what came before this season, before this training camp. Lest the three accomplished backs turn to great runs past, Turner is there to reel them in. Turner is fond of pointing out that two young backs - Ryan Torain, who has impressed so far, and rookie Keiland Williams - are also in camp, and he will coach all of them the same.

"At the beginning, they can say all that," Turner said. " 'This is what I've done. I've done this. I've done that. I've been to X number of Pro Bowls,' all this stuff. That just comes with it. That's the natural nature of things.

"They don't come in with that understanding that we're just going on now, right now. I get right to the point. I nip that in the bud every day."

Constant evaluation

So as the backs go through their drills - coming out of the backfield, cutting into the flat, catching a pass - Turner is apt to critique the angle at which they run their routes, the way they make their cuts, the footwork with which they start the patterns. He is also there - on the field and in meeting rooms - "without chewing any tail," as he said, whispering at times, bellowing at others.

"We're evaluating you every day on what you're doing now," he tells them. "The past is history."

So it does not matter that Portis has more 1,000-yard seasons (six) than Parker (three) and Johnson (two) combined. What matters is today.

Shanahan has commended each on his conditioning and attitude. Portis, Shanahan said, is in "excellent shape," down to 217 pounds from the 230-something at which he played last year. He is telling teammates and even the public that he is more motivated, at least in part because he feels so many people doubt him.

"It's easy to be in shape when you believe in something," Portis said, referring to Shanahan's program. "That's made it easy. Being in shape, believing in what you're doing, they all run hand in hand."

The belief in himself has never wavered, whatever his age. Still, during the offseason, one in which Portis felt he was being questioned from all sides, he escaped to Jamaica, to Costa Rica, to Brazil, as far from football as he could get.

"You work hard, you get the opportunity to have peace of mind, you take it," Portis said.

A week into his ninth training camp in the NFL, his seventh in Washington, what peace of mind can Portis have? By any other measure, he is not an old man. Neither is Johnson. Neither is Parker. But here they are, sharing the same practice field, embroiled in a competition, going through the process of learning that the 21,293 NFL yards they have gained among them mean exactly nothing now.

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