It looks like Torain's time in Redskins' backfield
Leading late in the fourth quarter Sunday against Philadelphia, the Washington Redskins turned to their ground game in an attempt to run out the clock.
Veteran running back Clinton Portis had delivered many times in similar situations, but with another outcome undecided, Portis was out with a groin injury and and second-year player Ryan Torain shouldered the load on Washington's final drive in a 17-12 victory at Lincoln Financial Field.
"You saw how hard that man ran?" cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "He went out there and was physical. They [coaches] kept calling his number and he kept bringing it."
Once the focal point of the offense, Portis is no longer guaranteed his status as the Redskins' top back. His age, 29, lack of commitment to offseason conditioning for most of his first six seasons with Washington and the concussion he suffered in 2009 have prompted management to explore other options at the position.
His latest significant injury opened the door for Torain - who began the season on the practice squad - and is expected to sideline the nine-year veteran for at least the Week 5 matchup against Green Bay at FedEx Field.
And despite Portis's strong showing against the Eagles, it seems the Redskins must make a long-term move in the backfield soon, with the injury-prone Torain, 24, or someone else, because Portis is in the final guaranteed season of his contract and late in his career.
Things are changing quickly in the organization under Coach Mike Shanahan, and it appears Portis is among many veterans whose Redskins careers may be winding down.
"Everyone knows how hard Clinton plays and what he's done to help us win games over the years," tight end Chris Cooley said recently. "Clinton has been a great back in this league and we definitely need Clinton. But just like with anybody else, we need everyone to be ready to come in and step up and make plays. So if other guys step up, then that's what you want."
Although Portis started against the Eagles, Torain, by design, was involved in the game plan from the outset. Torain scored Washington's first touchdown on a 12-yard run through the middle on which he ran over Eagles strong safety Quintin Mikell at about the 7-yard line en route to the end zone.
"That definitely made a statement to everyone," outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "When a guy makes a play like that, believe me, everyone notices."
Portis left the game for good early in the fourth quarter and Washington turned to Torain, who gained 30 yards on seven rushes during the last possession. The Redskins ran their first play from scrimmage with 4 minutes 4 seconds remaining. The Eagles took possession with 1:07 to play. Torain finished with a game-high 70 yards.
Promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster before the Week 3 loss to St. Louis, Torain gained 46 yards on only seven rushes (a 6.6-yard average) in that game. He also had a long gain of 36 yards.
"At the end of the day, I just knew that hard work was going to pay off," said Torain, who has 116 yards on 25 rushes with one touchdown. "And I just kept pushing through everything."
When Shanahan ran the Denver Broncos' football operation, he selected Torain in the fifth round (148th overall) of the 2008 draft. Shanahan brought Torain to Washington after Denver released him because "he can fit in any scheme. He's a downhill runner. You can see that type of power he had when he scored that touchdown . . . on that little trap inside and ran over a safety. Not a lot of guys can do that, and keep the [leg] drive, and obviously it turned into a touchdown. He's got a lot of attributes and that's one of the reasons why we're really positive about him."
Torain's timely display overshadowed Portis's rebound performance.
Portis played sparingly against St. Louis after going down without being touched on a 27-yard run in the first quarter. The two-time Pro Bowler's 2009 season ended in Week 9 because of a concussion, and Portis's stop-and-drop move stirred media and fan speculation that he had shied from contact.
The strange ending to the play prompted Shanahan to discuss the situation with Portis. Shanahan told reporters Portis had a wrist injury and was worried about fumbling. The injury, however, was not the main factor in his decision, Portis said, revealing he fell to the field because several Rams defensive players were converging on him and he chose not to fight for extra yards and risk the ball being stripped. Moreover, Portis expressed confidence he made the correct decision.
With that backdrop, Portis was effective against the Eagles while playing through pain, rushing for 55 yards (with a 5.0-yard average) and catching two passes for 26 yards. "I thought he was exceptional," Shanahan said. "I thought he came back with a vengeance and ran the ball well, caught it on the screens and did everything we asked him to do. Yeah, he played very hard, tough football and made some big plays for us."
After playing at more than 230 pounds last season, Portis reported to training camp at 217 and withstood challenges from fellow Pro Bowlers Larry Johnson and Willie Parker, who were released. Portis retained the job he has held since Shanahan traded him from Denver for Hall of Fame-bound cornerback Champ Bailey and a second-round draft pick that was used to select 1,000-yard rusher Tatum Bell.
Portis leads the Redskins with 195 yards rushing (he has a 4.0-yard average), has scored two touchdowns and remains an effective blocker at this advanced stage of his career. But in his past 20 games, he has rushed for 100 yards just twice and has only one gain of at least 40 yards.
For this season, Portis has a base salary of almost $7.2 million, of which $6.4 million was guaranteed regardless of whether he made the 53-man roster (the remainder became guaranteed when Portis was with the team on opening day). In addition, the Redskins on Aug. 31 paid Portis a $500,000 bonus.
He is off the books after the season, which would free the Redskins to pursue a younger back in the upcoming free agent class, expected to be the best ever. Torain could continue to impress and remain in the team's plans, and Washington also could select a back high in the draft.
"It's a business sport," Torain said. "And when the coach asks us to help, everybody's got to play the role."