ASHBURN, Va. – The little yellow piece of paper handed to Clinton Portis contained nine names. When he pored over them, his sleepy eyes went wide as silver dollars, and he chuckled softly as he ticked off the names on the list.
He knew the common thread immediately. The list bore the names of nine running backs who have started at least one game for the Broncos since Portis was traded by that franchise before the 2004 season. Players that, as the logic went at the time he was dealt to the Washington Redskins, could simply be plugged into Denver's system with the same megawatt results Portis delivered his first two seasons in the NFL.
"It's all about the system, right?" Portis said with a grin. "Well then, I guess right now they are trapped in the system."
Four and a half seasons have passed, and the Broncos still haven't found an adequate replacement for their onetime superstar. But this isn't about revisionist history. Even Portis isn't foolish enough to suggest Denver made a mistake dealing him for cornerback Champ Bailey. Instead, as he stands at the latest peak in his career – and holding a commanding lead in the league's rushing race with 818 yards – the 27-year old Portis believes he is delivering a salient rebuttal to NFL theory. One that teammate Shaun Alexander summed up best.
"You can find running backs," Alexander said. "But can you find great ones?"
It was a rhetorical question. As the former league MVP Alexander learned, the NFL sucks the lifeblood from its runners and unceremoniously discards the carcasses. But in the rare event a franchise finds a lasting, consistent star, it often protects him like plutonium. And Portis is making his case as one of the enduring elements of his era, off to the best start of his seven-year career and on pace to rush for 1,869 yards and 16 touchdowns. With the Redskins paving a road as NFC Super Bowl contenders, those would be MVP-type digits, even as the league splits at the seams with bloated quarterback statistics.
That success is a shot across the bow of Portis' past critics, a cadre of fans and media analysts who forecasted his demise as an injury-prone player and criticized his practice dedication under former coach Joe Gibbs. But there was a shift this offseason, when Portis restructured his contract to gain a $9.2 million signing bonus and $15.7 million in guaranteed money through 2010. Within that deal were financial incentives for Portis' participation in Washington's offseason program – something he had always eschewed to spend the spring and summer in Florida, working out near his home with former University of Miami teammates.
That changed this offseason, when Portis stayed in Virginia and participated in the Redskins' array of workouts and minicamps. Now seven games into the season, Portis is once again teasing fans with his big-play ability. He's notched eight carries of 20 yards or more so far. By comparison, he had only six 20-plus runs in his previous two seasons under Joe Gibbs.
All the while, he has tested first-year coach Jim Zorn, who's been both openly stern and demanding of Portis' practice involvement. And when he doesn't get it, you can hear the annoyance in Zorn's voice, such as this week, which has seen Portis miss practice while resting his hip.
"He's the kind of player that every coach would dream about on Sunday," Zorn said. "I dream about a more participatory player in practice. But I will say this – he gives it up during the games and wears himself out. He wants to rest during the week. It's not conducive to all the things that we want to try to do, but it's what we've got to work with.
"I'm not OK with him not practicing, but it's a necessity. He does get dinged up. And physically he needs to rest, so we're giving him a rest."
Heart of the offense
Certainly it has been hard for Zorn to mount a serious complaint. Portis has been the lever cranking the offense, helping to take pressure off young quarterback Jason Campbell, while also protecting the signal-caller as arguably the best blocking running back in the NFL.
And there is little to suggest Portis' time off is hurting him. While the coaching staff could microwave your brain with all the statistical analysis, there are a few indicators suggesting Portis' offseason work has made him significantly stronger in the early going. Whereas last season he averaged around 4 yards per carry no matter when he touched the ball, Portis is building his production to a climax as games go on this season, averaging 3.3 yards per carry in the first quarter, 4.6 in the second, 6.7 in the third and 5.4 in the fourth. That's reflected in his attempts as well: He's averaging 3.6 yards per carry in his first 10 attempts, 6.1 yards per carry in his second 10 attempts, and a spectacular 7.3 yards in carries 21 to 25.
That's a clear indicator of defenses wearing down as games go on. And Portis believes it is reflective of an offense that is completely healthy and settled for the first time in his career – from the line to the tight ends to the wide receivers and quarterback. Not to mention fullback Mike Sellers.
"Think about it. In five years, I've had four quarterbacks," Portis said. "I've had four offensive coordinators. I've had 10 different offensive linemen. I've had four tight ends. Receivers like Laveranues Coles, Rod Gardner, Brandon Lloyd – all of those guys came and went. You look for consistency, and something was always changing."
Something other than Portis, that is. Despite all the shuffling that went on around him, his detractors often failed to appreciate that he has been one of the most dependable running backs in the league during his tenure. Since entering the NFL in 2002, only LaDainain Tomlinson has rushed for more regular-season yardage in the past six-plus seasons – 9,860 to Portis' 8,533 – but Tomlinson's done it playing in 11 more games.
Yet it may be this year that Portis finally receives the ultimate recognition, and ironically, behind a line and in a scheme that he seemed to criticize earlier this season. In September, he told the Washington Post he would like to go to a team with the best offensive line or scheme and see what kind of numbers he could put up.
"Nobody took it to heart," center Casey Rabach said. "It's another thing Clinton will say and another thing we can rip Clinton for."
Reminded that the running game took off shortly after he made the remark, Portis jokingly took another jab at his line.
"I might need to spark them again," he said. "I'm about to throw them under the bus again. Randy Thomas, you suck. Casey, you suck. Pete Kendall, you suck. If they are going to come out and respond behind my comments, that's great. I think everybody in the locker room knows I've always given everything I've got for my line and my teammates."
Handing out punishment
Regardless of where he stood at the beginning of the season, Portis has never been wanting in the eyes of his opponents. He's widely regarded across the NFL as one of the most complete running backs. Beyond his running ability, he consistently delivers some of the most punishing blocks seen by running backs. That much was on display in the season opener when he pancaked Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka, and it's typically a focal point in opposing defensive meetings.
"He isn't going to cut you – he goes right for your facemask," said Lions defensive tackle Cory Redding. "You don't see that a lot in today's NFL with small backs. They see big guys coming, they go right for the kneecaps. Portis, he goes right for you and hits you in your chest and makes you take him. I respect that about him."
"He's wicked," Zorn said. "Watch him without the ball. He's not watching the game. He's always participating in something. When he comes out for a breather, he gets a lot of oxygen on the sideline. The reason he does is because when he's not carrying the ball, he's going to hunt someone. And if you're not ready for it, you will be tagged. He is a violent player."
While his blocking and rushing have been amongst the league's best – and he is a serviceable receiver out of the backfield – the coaching staff has still found minor tweaks. Running backs coach Stump Mitchell has had Portis work on locking onto a defender's eyes right until he makes a move, in hopes of cutting down the angles a tackler can take when Portis looks in the direction of his next cut.
Meanwhile, Zorn is still trying to find the right balance with the passing game, in hopes of opening up the offense and some larger leads. Since losing to the Giants 16-7 in the season opener, all of Washington's games have been decided by a touchdown or less. But in that span, teams have also started to creep up against Washington's running game, in response to Portis' dominance.
No matter what defenses do, it's not likely to change Washington's scheme drastically. Zorn has tailored his West Coast offense around Portis, not unlike what he saw as the quarterbacks coach in Seattle under Mike Holmgren. No running back in the NFL carried the ball more than Alexander from 2003 to 2005, a period that saw him notch 1,049 rushing attempts and included Alexander's 370-carry MVP season in 2005.
Now Alexander is sitting behind Portis on the depth chart, and witnessing something that seems very familiar.
"When I was on a streak like that (during the MVP season), I just felt like, I'm going to stay in this groove and let them ride me all the way to the Super Bowl," Alexander said. "I tell Clinton, 'Get your rest. We're going to ride you all the way.' "