Running Into His Twilight

Tailbacks Rarely Have Long Careers. Can Portis Buck the Trend?

Running backs tend to be less effective at age 28 because of the physical nature of the position. "I probably got a great five years left in me," said Clinton Portis, who turns 28 Sept. 1.
Running backs tend to be less effective at age 28 because of the physical nature of the position. "I probably got a great five years left in me," said Clinton Portis, who turns 28 Sept. 1. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Work began Saturday at Redskins Park, and work, for the moment, meant Clinton Portis jogged backwards, just loosening up in a line with his teammates. Fans along the sideline howled his name, mere movement by the team's star running back enough to get them going in the early-morning heat, and he raised his right hand by way of acknowledgment.

At that point, with the work started, Portis was just two weeks removed from a 10-day sojourn to, of all places, Berlin, where what they call football is soccer, where he could think not of the work but of the pleasure, where he would be neither recognized nor harassed nor asked about how much he would practice or whether he really gets along with Coach Jim Zorn.

"I mean, think about the Berlin Wall," Portis said Saturday after practice, thinking back on his trip. "Seeing that, seeing all the shooting towers, and how far away everything was built from it, that's a lot of land to cross. It's obvious to spot you trying to run across there. Just the sacrifice to get across, man."

There is no more obvious player to spot, in the crosshairs of the Redskins' fan base and its front office and its coaching staff, than Clinton Portis. And the question that's so often asked about one of Washington's most complex players is simple: Will he make the sacrifice?

"Don't rest me," Portis said.

"He worked really hard," Zorn said.

"I just see more effort in practice," offensive coordinator Sherman Smith said.

These are the stories that dominate training camps from coast to coast each August, stories of changed attitudes and renewed commitments and blah blah blah. With Portis, though, they seem to be annual events, because he is enormously important to the Redskins' success, because no player in their locker room has Portis's penchant for drama -- and, therefore, scrutiny -- and because his opinion has, on occasion, differed with that of his coaches.

Portis understands, and perhaps even enjoys, the fact that he can be the fulcrum of the entire organization. "I guess the 'Disgruntled Portis' headlines sell," he said, smiling. And after a season in which he made the Pro Bowl for the first time in his five years as a Redskin, after he clashed with Zorn and then apparently made up with him, he decided the best way to clear his mind for 2009 -- his eighth year in the league -- was to take a transatlantic flight to visit a new city, by himself. No family. No entourage. Just him.

"It's to get away, man," he said. "Knowing the season was coming up, I think it served its purpose. I knew I wouldn't be doing any football-related activities, I wouldn't be watching no news. That's what I did. I got away, and I enjoyed myself."

Goodness knows the work, and the working relationships, are not always enjoyable. Portis's offseason was an extension of his 2008, when Zorn gave him the ball 342 times and he gained 1,487 yards, fourth most in the league. The season, though, was split neatly in two halves -- an average of 118 yards over the first eight games, 68 yards over the final eight.

So in the offseason, the coaching staff turned to Portis and again asked him to consider his work habits, both in season and out of it. Portis spent most of his time in Virginia, at Redskins Park, working out. But given the issues of the previous season -- when Portis publicly questioned Zorn's approach, at one point sarcastically referring to him as a "genius" -- the coaching staff wanted to make sure they felt out their featured back about each and every detail. After one June practice session, Smith and Portis walked off the field together and plopped down on a bench outside the building that houses the locker room. For nearly 20 minutes, they went back and forth -- communicating, if not agreeing.

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