Portis, Linemen Occupy Different Worlds, Seek Same Results
Sunday, October 26, 2008; Page D01
The pile of bodies on the turf was, in any other context, a strange setting for a celebration. But Casey Rabach rose to his knees, raised his right fist and pumped it. Randy Thomas hauled himself up next to him, and the two hit each other on the helmet before they headed back to the Washington Redskins' bench.
From the bottom of the pile emerged Clinton Portis, holding the football. Portis popped to his feet, took a step into the end zone, and spun that football like a top. It was his seventh touchdown in seven games this season, and as Rabach, Thomas and the rest of the offensive linemen congratulated each other, Portis listened to the crowd's roar, watching that ball spin, a personal celebration he shared with 90,000 fans.
"The line's blocking great," Portis would say later, after the Redskins had secured a 14-11 victory over Cleveland, after he had run for 175 yards and that score, helping him continue to lead the NFL in rushing.
"Obviously, that reflects well on us," Rabach said later.
It may seem obvious that Portis's performance to this point would reflect well on the line. This, though, is a complex relationship. There are perhaps no two positions in football as intertwined as offensive line and running back, because one cannot run if the other doesn't open holes, and the holes don't matter if the back doesn't hit them at the right moment.
Yet the two occupy completely different realms, Portis squarely in the spotlight and enjoying it, driving his black Maserati to work and parking it last week in the preferred spot reserved for the Redskins' "Offensive Player of the Week." The linemen pull their pickups and sport-utility vehicles into the same lot, parking, most weeks, where they can. As veteran tackle Chris Samuels said, "We just go to work."
They are teammates, and each depends on the other, but that doesn't mean they are required to be close away from the field or in the locker room. Portis seemed to emphasize as much after the first game this season, when he spoke openly about his career in Washington. He said then that his numbers were not as gaudy as they might be because, among other factors, "I'm dodging people in the backfield."
Portis said that came about for several reasons, particularly because opponents hadn't previously respected the Redskins' ability to pass. The words, unusually forthcoming for a world in which professional athletes speak largely in platitudes, struck a nerve, and the public discourse suddenly centered on questions of whether Portis was a team player. His linemen appeared particularly under attack.
Now, Portis is averaging 117 yards per game, more than 17 yards better than anyone else in the league. He has nearly 400 more yards through seven games this year than he did through the first seven a year ago. He has eight carries of at least 20 yards; in 2007, he had three all season. He is averaging 5.0 yards per carry, his best since 2003, when he was still with Denver, third-best among backs who get the ball at least 15 times per game.
And in the six games since he appeared to outsiders to be frustrated with his situation, he has gained 734 yards, his best six-game stretch as a Redskin. Now, provide him the opportunity to speak about that line -- from left to right, Samuels, Pete Kendall, Rabach, Thomas and Jon Jansen -- and he provides run-on sentences worth of praise.
"I think it's great just to have all the guys back together, you know," Portis said. "For five years, you really haven't had that, where you had a complete line with Randy and Jansen," who both missed almost all of last year with injuries.
"We were always missing one of those guys," he continued. "We had shuffles going on. We didn't have a tight end. I think right now just having the consistency, having guys who've played together, having the same team who went through camp come out and line up, not filling guys in, the communication, guys knowing other guys' weak points, being able to help out everybody that's out on the field, the strong and weak points of everybody else. I think it's just team ball."