Monday, February 28, 2011

Clinton Portis, former Redskin

The next time Clinton Portis thinks something through before saying it will be his first. Most of the opinions he expressed were basically reasonable, the problem was in voicing them out loud. But he clearly had no malice, he simply lacks the filter most of us have in the brain that says “I’m on the radio right now. I should pause and think about how this will sound and reconsider the phrasing, or perhaps leave it unsaid altogether.” Instead a thought popped up, it came right out, and in a matter of no time it was splattered all over the internet. Was that the coolest thing about Portis or the most problematic? I truly can’t decide.

And you have to admit, it’s hard not to like somebody who was both the hardest-blocking running back in the league and also the alter ego of Coach Janky Spanky, who would have done that coordinator job for much less than Snyder had to pay Gregg Williams. Honestly the NFL could use a few more guys who are unafraid to be themselves, even if I don’t think Portis had much choice in the matter and in this case “himself” was pretty much a nutcase.

Of course all this says nothing about his on-field performance. Portis was absolutely not the back we thought we were getting when the Redskins traded Champ Bailey and a 2nd round pick to get him. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry each of his two years in Denver, and never came close to that as a Redskin. He turned out to be a workhorse, not a gamebreaker. Grind-it-out running backs are nice, but hardly worth giving up a high draft pick and a future Hall of Fame corner for. In fact, when I first heard of the trade I just assumed the draft pick was coming in the other direction, as everyone knows running backs are easier to find than shut down corners.

But none of that is Clinton Portis’ fault. He played the hand he was dealt, toiling for years in unimaginative offenses behind weak lines with no legitimate passing game to keep defenses honest. And through all that he played his ass off. At no point as a Redskin (except in his very first game) did Portis pose a legitimate threat to break a big play. But he always took what the blockers gave him. If there were three yards to be had on a play, then you’d better believe he was getting those three yards, then driving a defender into the ground on his way down. Say what you will about his practice habits (and the fact that the guy is essentially broken down at age 29 indicates that it may be pretty reasonable for a running back to wish to avoid unnecessary wear and tear), but there is no one who played harder on Sundays. He may be worn out, but he wore himself out enthusiastically and on our behalf, even if his efforts weren’t always appreciated.

I will close with what I consider his two signature plays.

You know I enjoyed Portis’ blocking to what I’m sure was an annoying degree. I admit – I couldn’t shut up about it. So one last time, enjoy the block that Matthias Kiwanuka probably still feels. And better still – appreciate how Portis celebrates a solid block as much as many other backs celebrate touchdowns. That’s a ballplayer.

I don’t have video for the second one, but it’s what I think of when I think of Portis as a ballcarrier:

Week 5, 2008. With a six point lead late in the fourth the Redskins were driving in the hopes of keeping the Eagles from getting the ball back. On a 4th and 1 at the Eagles 38 the Redskins (oddly) line up in shotgun and hand to Portis on the draw. No one is fooled, the blocking fails, and Portis is hit at least two yards in the backfield. He is momentarily stopped cold, then he lowers his head, keeps churning his legs, and slowly but surely pushes the Eagles defenders back across the first down marker. After that, victory formation times three and the Redskins went to 4-1 and knocked off their second division rival in a row.

And yet the fact that Portis’ “signature play” also marked the high water mark of the Jim Zorn era… well that’s probably a good indication that by 2011 it is time to have moved on.


  1. Good thoughts on all of the above. I will miss Portis' blocking--and so will whoever is the 'Skins starting QB in 2011--and his tough running style. In short yardage, I was always confident that he's find a way to convert, even if the offense as a whole had difficulty putting themselves in those situations.

    Here's a question for you, given Portis' desire to keep playing even with his diminished abilities as a feature back: do you think he could find a contract playing fullback/goal-line/third-down blocker for some team? I suspect that he could put on 15-20 lbs and do a fair job at FB; it might add a few years to his career, too, since he's plenty fast for a blocker even if his tailbackspeed is nearly gone by now.

  2. Interesting thought, but I don't really see him as a fullback. Recognizing and picking up blitzes is a rather different skill from leading through the hole and choosing the right guy to block. Old dog/new tricks etc. And his increasing brittleness calls into question whether he could survive the physical punishment.