By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 10:37 PM
"I don't mind," said running back Clinton Portis, the Redskins' perennial lightning rod. "For me, it was all negative attention, everybody complaining about me not wanting to participate in the preseason. To have all the other stuff going on, it took the attention away from me, allowed me to come out and work and get myself right."
From the coaching staff to the locker room, the positive reviews for Portis in the weeks leading up to Sunday's season opener against the Dallas Cowboys have been unwavering. It's a far cry from last season, when many of Portis' s teammates treated him like an outcast. After all, Portis is a guy who got in a locker room altercation with Mike Sellers and even placed a call from the sideline to the coaches' box to have his fullback removed mid-game. If there's anyone who might harbor a grudge against Portis, it's Sellers.
"The effort that he's put in this offseason, the stuff that's he's done, the teammate that he's become - definitely, he has my respect," Sellers said. "And we have an understanding now. It's football. In order to play with each other, you've got to be able to let things go. I let it go and appreciate that he let it go."
"The Clinton from last year to the Clinton now," Sellers said, "a hundred times difference."
Since Mike Shanahan was hired as head coach in January, a lot has been made about the new attitude circulating around Redskins Park. But when it comes to individual players, perhaps no one has embraced and exemplified the change as much as Portis. He was a recurring problem for Coach Jim Zorn and his staff, opting not to fully participate in practices and voicing criticism of the offense and his blockers.
"It's hard to really play as a team when you really don't feel you're a team," said offensive tackle Stephon Heyer. "When you've got guys doing their own thing and not really putting in the work as they should, it's hard. When you're doing the work you should and you think another guy's not, it does have an effect. This year he's a lot different. He's definitely putting in the work and the time."
Throughout the offseason, training camp and preseason, Portis has been active in practice, engaged in meetings and optimistic about what the coming season holds - not just for him as a runner, but for the entire team.
"It's like a family," Portis said of this year's squad. "In previous years past, everybody went home. When people left from over here, they went home. It was like, 'I'll see you tomorrow at work.' Compared to now, you can catch numerous groups of guys - five or six guys - out together, having dinner, hanging around, shooting pool, bowling or doing something. I think it's just a team vibe all of a sudden."
Sitting out the final eight games of last season because of a concussion gave Portis a lot of time to reflect on his place in the Redskins organization.
"I think it gave me a chance to go out, take a look in the mirror and realize [what] things [were] my fault, some of the things I was doing wrong and the person I needed to be and what I needed to do to come back and be a part of the organization," he said.
"Honestly I didn't feel like I was doing nothing wrong but telling the truth. But at the same time, I got to the point of, I could've been a better teammate. I could hang around. What's the rush for me to get to work and get out of work? Do the things that everybody else do. Everybody else come out here and workout, they get it done. . . .Why can't I?"
Something had to change. Even before suffering the concussion midway through last season, Portis' numbers had declined sharply. He enters Sunday's game with just one 100-yard performance in his past 13 games. At 29 years old, he appeared to be a step slower.
But Portis is noticeably trimmer than last season, he's taking more repetitions in practice and has worked harder on conditioning than in recent years.
"I feel, when we was younger, when we was in college, that was the approach he had to take," said receiver Santana Moss, a college teammate of Portis's. "You get into the league, and you start doing things without having to take those measures, you kind of get used to it and say, 'Hey, I didn't work out last year and rushed for 1,500 [yards].' You can't fault a guy for that, you know what I mean?
"He was one of those guys who was proving that, 'Hey, when I didn't do anything, I still went out there and played good football.' By making him do what he done this year - they didn't really have to make him, they just said what they wanted - and he was here."
A big part of Portis's new attitude can be attributed to Shanahan. Portis had his two best seasons playing under Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner in Denver. They didn't have to twist his arm to sell Portis on the benefits of following their instructions. Portis says he prefers Shanahan's approach to practices, which keeps him out of pads and keeps him from taking hits in the days leading up to games.
"I actually was telling somebody the other today, I actually feel younger at this point than I did in a long time," Portis said.
While Shanahan promised players that if they don't practice, they won't play in games, Portis had to prove himself to coaches and fend off challenges from Larry Johnson and Willie Parker, free agents brought in to compete for the starting job. Portis says he doesn't mind that most of the buzz surrounds other players on the team, that other players are featured prominently in advertising materials.
He long ago gave up on trying to make everyone happy.
"You can't satisfy people," he said. "For myself, I'm content, I'm happy with what I've done over my career. I think my teammates are happy with the things I do and what I bring to the game. That's really all that matters."
Of course, Portis has had similar revelations in the past. On Sunday, Redskins fans will learn whether Portis's new approach and his commitment to Shanahan's offense pays dividends on the field. Despite all the offseason change at Redskins Park, Portis is still the team's top runner.
"Having this opportunity to be center stage, I think it'll be a great time to show that I'm still here," Portis said of Sunday's game. "Although you all want me to be forgotten about, I'm still here."
Staff writers Jason Reid and Tarik El-Bashir contributed to this report.