Portis looking to put best foot forward

Big-money running back takes blame for slow start by him and 1-3 Redskins

Pro Football

October 07, 2004|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. - Thus far, Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis has been a one-week, $50.5 million flash, who may have lit up his teammates and coach more than the scoreboard.

But nearly six days after some stirring comments, the Redskins said Portis' statements were made more out of desire than frustration, and he has nothing but passion for the game.

"He has a great desire to excel," said Earnest Byner, the Redskins running backs coach. "He likes to motivate people, he wants to be a leader. He plays as hard as any running back I've ever been around without the ball in his hands, and that tells you about his approach to the game."

Translation: Portis is no prima donna. He might appear to be one. He forced a trade out of Denver with a possible training camp holdout. He arrived at Redskins Park in a 1974 yellow Caprice Classic, and has the same loud taste in his wardrobe.

This guy has better material than either Jay Leno or David Letterman.

So, after Portis gained only 58 yards on 20 carries and lost a fumble that turned the momentm in the Redskins' 17-13 loss to Cleveland on Sunday, no one was really surprised that he was outspoken.

"They were literally calling our plays and hitting the gaps before us," said Portis after the game. "How they knew them, I have no idea, but I just know they hit the gaps before we did. It was like we were running into brick walls."

Byner wasn't shocked by the words, or that Portis took the blame for losses against the Giants and Cowboys. He has fumbled three times this season compared to just once in two years in Denver.

"The reality is that he said it because somebody told him that on the other team," said Byner. "We got a pretty good system. We believe in it. We just have to go out and focus more on details."

"For him to say I blew the game in Cleveland, I blew the Giants game, you want a guy to have the ability to stand up and be a leader," said Byner. "Some times, difficult times bring out leadership in people."

These are tough times in Washington. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder hired coach Joe Gibbs to restore glory to a team that had a 28-36 record in the previous four seasons.

One of Gibbs' trademarks had been a dominant running game featuring runners like Byner and John Riggins, so he traded cornerback Champ Bailey for Portis. It was the first trade involving two players coming off Pro Bowl seasons since 1973 when the Chargers traded quarterback John Hadl for Rams defensive tackle Coy Bacon.

Portis created a buzz in training camp with his darting, slashing moves, and he looked every bit as good as the back in Denver, where he gained 3,099 yards rushing in his first two seasons.

Portis started the season strong with 148 yards on 29 carries in the opener, including a 64-yard touchdown on his first attempt. But he has rushed for only 69, 94 and 58 yards in the past three games. Troubles can be traced to a lack of cohesion on the offensive line and an ineffective passing game. The Redskins (1-3) are facing seven and eight players at the line of scrimmage constantly.

There are now questions about Portis and whether he is strong enough to run inside and handle 25 to 30 carries a game.

"There are some growing pains," said Byner. "We have to do better converting on third downs. We're building. It takes a while. You can tell by our scores that we're close to winning.

"I've talked with Clinton about the expectations," said Byner. "When you have earned something the way he has earned it, there are a lot of people who don't like it, a lot of jealousy. A lot of guys expect a lot out of him outside as well as within the organization. And he expects those things out of himself."

Portis has established himself as a leader and mentor. Few players prepare as diligently.

"I think he is a great running back," said Redskins running back Chad Morton. "If you have a question, he'll try to help you out. He knows his stuff, he always has the answer. If you want to see how hard he plays, watch the tape. He is always trying to make that extra block, always in the area trying to pick somebody off when he doesn't have to."

The Redskins believe the old Portis will eventually emerge.

"The best thing about him is this: If you're a back in the league, if there's a hole, you're going to hit it. You'll get some yards," said quarterback Mark Brunell. "What's amazing about a back like Clinton is how they can turn nothing into something. This isn't the time to point fingers. It's time to keep working and for us to come together. We'll be fine."

Portis has some extra motivation this week. Apparently, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said Portis was no Priest Holmes after the Chiefs' 27-24 win in Baltimore on Monday night in which Holmes rushed for 125 yards.

"His basic instincts are of a guy who likes to get up in the hole, but actually likes to slash backside and make people miss in the secondary," said Byner. "I can see him being in the top 3 percent in the league because he is freaky as far as body control. Few people get a solid hit on him.

"Clinton Portis is no Priest Holmes. He is Clinton Portis. Ray said that, but who knows what he meant. The reality is we have a guy on our team who we trust in, who we believe is one of the best in the league."

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (2-2) vs. Washington Redskins (1-3)

Site: FedEx Field, Landover

When: Sunday, 8:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 7, ESPN/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM), WJFK (106.7 FM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Line: Pick 'em

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