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Are Portis’ best days behind him?
Question of the Day
Lying pressed against the artificial turf inside the Georgia Dome, briefly unconscious and later unable to remember what happened, Clinton Portis looked like he smacked into a wall.
Maybe he already had.
It’s a dirty job, NFL running backs. They get beat up and worn out, and that’s just the physical part. Doubt and hesitation tug at the psyche. Diminishing returns arrive faster than at other positions.
Portis’ career workload raises the question of whether that is now happening to him. He is, after all, in his sixth season with the Washington Redskins and his eighth as a professional.
Portis, who suffered a concussion against Atlanta two weeks ago and missed Sunday’s win over Denver, has been working behind a patchwork offensive line.
Still, his typical quickness and burst seem to be missing. After rushing for 1,487 yards last season (fourth highest in the league) on 342 carries (third highest), he looks like a different runner.
Portis is averaging a modest 4.0 yards a carry (the league average is 4.3), and that number is skewed by a 78-yard run against Philadelphia. More than 47 percent of his runs have netted 2 yards or fewer. Meanwhile, his replacement, Ladell Betts, gained 184 yards for a 4.5 average in the past two games. Betts appears to be the more decisive, confident runner.
Redskins coach Jim Zorn attributes Portis’ flat performance to a lack of consistent practice time because of nagging injuries. He made a point Monday of saying Portis will regain his starting job once he’s cleared to play and said Portis remains an effective runner.
But a decline would not be unprecedented or unexpected because Portis’ durability and ruggedness might be catching up to him. Going into the season, only four active runners had more career carries. All of them - Edgerrin James, LaDainian Tomlinson, Fred Taylor and Jamal Lewis - have seen better days.
At 28, Portis is the youngest of the group. But the odometer says he is older. He has been a workhorse throughout his career, especially after the Redskins traded All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey to Denver in 2004 to get the fast, tough, durable running back required by new coach Joe Gibbs.
The No. 1 rusher in franchise history, John Riggins, played nine seasons for the Redskins. Portis has played fewer than six, yet he is second by only 880 yards. Portis averaged 293 carries during his first seven seasons and has four years of 300 or more carries in the last five. All running backs are different, but that many rushing attempts over a period of time - in addition to blocking and receiving - often are followed by a sharp, immediate decline, regardless of age.
James averaged 317 carries from 1999 through 2007. Now he is looking for work, cut by Seattle a few weeks ago. Cincinnati’s Rudi Johnson was essentially finished after three straight 300-carry seasons. For Stephen Davis, averaging 301 carries over four seasons apparently was too much. Terry Allen, Jerome Bettis, Ahman Green, Corey Dillon and Shaun Alexander among others also dropped off considerably after several seasons of concentrated work.
“[Portis] is probably trending downward, but it’s impossible to evaluate him based on his numbers,” ESPN analyst and former quarterback Trent Dilfer said. “That is probably the second-worst offensive line in the league. Maybe the worst. Yes, he’s trending downward, but he’s not [finished] yet. … Some players are just flat done because of the cumulative effect of carries and overuse. Other players, that time is near, but it is not now [for Portis].”
If not now, then when? Competing in the most violent of sports, NFL running backs probably absorb the most punishment and traditionally have had the shortest career expectancy. Some runners have been compared to “bowling balls,” but according to former Redskins great Larry Brown, it’s really the other way around.
“It’s like you roll the ball down the alley and the pins essentially are the running backs,” said Brown, whose running career was cut short by injuries and general wear and tear. “They’re the ones that get knocked down every time.”
About the Author
By Tom Harris and Madhav Khandekar
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