- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Clinton Portis found the end zone the first time he touched the ball for the Washington Redskins. What he couldn’t find were ways to make that kind of play happen regularly.

That 64-yard dash to the end zone in the opener against Tampa Bay wasn’t the omen it seemed. Portis didn’t have a run of more than 22 yards in his next 14 games, and he isn’t going to get another chance in this week’s season finale against Minnesota because he tore a pectoral muscle Sunday in Dallas.

“From the moment we hit the end zone against Tampa Bay, it was like, ‘They want to run the ball, so we’re going to take that away,’ and that’s what teams did,” Portis said.

It didn’t help that in Denver, Portis put together the most productive first two seasons of any back other than University of Miami predecessor Edgerrin James and Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson and Earl Campbell. Or that Redskins opponents knew, as coach Joe Gibbs said, “rushing the football is a big part of what we do,” especially considering the team wound up having the NFL’s worst downfield passing game.

With the exception of victories over lightweights Chicago, Detroit and the New York Giants, Portis never showed the burst he had in Denver, where he routinely reeled off big plays. In just his two games against Kansas City last year, Portis had runs of 28, 53, 59 and 65 yards and catches of 30 and 72 yards while scoring six touchdowns.

Portis, who averaged 5.5 yards with the Broncos, averaged only 3.8 yards in his Redskins debut. Backup Ladell Betts (4.0) actually has a higher average. So did Portis’ much-maligned predecessor, Trung Canidate (4.2). In fact, Portis has the lowest average of any Redskins rushing leader in seven years.

Portis expected some adjustment from Denver’s two-back scheme, with its premium on cutback runs, to Washington’s one-back power-based system but said he never felt like himself.

“I really didn’t,” Portis said. “I never scratched the surface of it. The first part of the year, we couldn’t get people to respect our passing game, and they would just stack the box. I would get hit in the legs, and even if I made somebody miss, somebody else would be there. Our offense wasn’t clicking on all cylinders.”

Portis said the quarterback switch from Mark Brunell to Patrick Ramsey after Washington fell to 3-6 helped.

“We finally got it going some … but it has been my roughest year in football,” Portis said. “It’s been the toughest 1,300 yards in the history of the NFL if you ask me.”

Even though Portis won’t play in Sunday’s finale against Minnesota, he’s tied with Curtis Martin of the New York Jets for the NFL lead in carries. But of the 16 backs with at least 1,000 yards — Portis finished with 1,315 — only one has a lower average and only one has fewer rushing touchdowns than Portis’ five.

Despite the down year, the 23-year-old Portis is optimistic about his future in Washington. He signed an eight-year, $50.5million contract after being acquired for Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey and a second-round draft choice March4.

“Next year the running game will be great,” Portis vowed. “It takes time to realize what went wrong. If we get everybody going, the offense can suit me.”

Portis also said he first hurt his chest early in the season but didn’t tell anyone, refusing to give in to the pain until Sunday. The muscle likely tore when he was tackled after picking up a first down on a third-and-3 run early in the game. He came out in favor of Betts and carried just five more times for 16 yards before leaving for good late in the third quarter.

“We had so many injured guys, how would it look if I couldn’t play with pain?” Portis said. “I felt it every time I got tackled and fell awkwardly on my shoulder. On that third-and-3, I got hit on both shoulders, and I knew right away.”

The torn muscle would have sidelined Portis for several weeks if Washington’s season wasn’t ending. Even if he’s healthy in time for the Feb.13 Pro Bowl, Portis said he likely would pass on Hawaii if Shaun Alexander, Tiki Barber or Ahman Green pulls out and he’s asked to represent the NFC as the first alternate.

Going in through the back door doesn’t work for Portis.

“I really ain’t ever been the type of guy who had hand-me-downs,” he said. “I always feel like I’m first priority.”

Note — The Redskins released offensive lineman Dan Goodspeed, who was signed earlier this month. The team expects to make several other moves today.

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