- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Maybe we should put a restrictor plate on Joe Gibbs. Is the man going a million miles an hour or what? He beat everybody to the punch on Gregg Williams, locked up Mark Brunell before he hit free agency, and now he’s taking a serious run at one of the best backs in football, Clinton Portis. No matter how you feel about these developments, you have to admit: Things sure are happenin’.

Can you imagine if Joe really decides to get crazy and drafts Kellen Winslow Jr. with the fifth pick? Talk about a supercharged offense. He’d have (hypothetically) Brunell, Portis, Laveranues Coles and Winslow to draw X’s and O’s for — and Chris Samuels, Jon Jansen and Randy Thomas manning the fort up front. A fairly magnificent seven, by any measure.

(I can’t see Gibbs going for a tight end that high, though. Not with the team having so many other needs.)

Portis would fill the Redskins’ most gaping offensive hole. He’s a back defenses would have to respect, not a runner-of-the-mill type like Trung Canidate or Ladell Betts. He’s productive (more than 1,500 yards in each of his two NFL seasons), has breakaway speed (eight gains of better than 50 yards in his last 16 regular-season starts), is a receiving threat out of the backfield and, perhaps best of all, is a strong finisher (both of his 200-yard rushing games have come in December).

About the worst thing you can say about him is that, at 5-11, 205, he isn’t a big guy — certainly leaner than any of Gibbs’ previous lead backs (except for Joe Washington and Kelvin Bryant, who held the job only briefly). But he’s very comfortable running between the tackles and, were he to come to Washington, would probably be the most dangerous back Joe has ever had, if not the best.

To get him, the Redskins would have to give up a lot — franchise player Champ Bailey and, according to reports, a second-round pick. But then, Gibbs has always been willing to make such sacrifices when a premium runner was available. He parted with a No.1 for George Rogers and No.1 and a No.2 for Gerald Riggs. He also traded, come to think of it, for Washington (a No.2) and Earnest Byner (Mike Oliphant). (Indeed, the only back of any consequence that the Redskins have drafted and developed in the last 20-odd years is Stephen Davis.)

Davis’ departure in free agency last year, of course, is why Gibbs is in such dire need of a runner. Stephen would have been an ideal Gibbs back — a banger with some quicks. But he’ll be 30 at the start of next season; Portis, who will only be 23, has much better long-term prospects.

So why would the Broncos want to part with him? Part of it is that they don’t want to renegotiate the contract he signed as a rookie — which is wonderfully favorable to them, since Portis was a second-round steal. Another part of it is that they want to firm up their defense, which let them down in a big way in their playoff game against the Colts. But there are two other parts of it, I’m convinced, that haven’t really been talked about.

The first might be described as organizational arrogance. The Broncos probably figure they can find another back who can rush for 1,000 yards behind their line; after all, they’ve come up with plenty of them in the past. They found Terrell Davis (three 1,500-yard seasons) in the sixth round. They found Olandis Gary (1,159 yards in ‘99) in the fourth, Mike Anderson (1,487 in ‘00) in the sixth, Portis in the second. Heck, they may feel like they’ve already found a replacement in Quentin Griffin, their fireplug fourth-rounder last year, who rushed for 136 yards in their regular-season meeting with Indy (while Clinton was on the mend).

The second “hidden” reason Denver might be willing to make the swap is that Mike Shanahan could be intrigued by Bailey’s possibilities as a pass-catcher. The Cowboys threw Deion a few; why couldn’t the Broncos toss a couple Champ’s way? (He, at least, played some receiver in college. Sanders was merely a Jerry Rice wannabe.)

The downside to this for the Redskins is that, once again, they would be siphoning off money from the defense (Bailey’s) to splurge on the offense. They did it last year, too, when they essentially used Daryl Gardener’s and Dan Wilkinson’s cap space for Coles and Thomas — and we all know how that turned out. With Champ gone and Fred Smoot replacing him as the No. 1 corner, Gregg Williams’ staff would have to call on all its collective brilliance to make something of the unit. Lotsa luck, fellas.

Then there’s the injury factor. Running backs do get nicked more than cornerbacks. Riggs, it seemed, was hurt more than he was healthy, carrying the ball just 402 times in his three seasons in Washington. Bailey is the kind of athlete who could play at a high level for another eight to 10 years. Would anyone expect Portis to carry the load for the Redskins for another decade?

Perhaps Gibbs’ thinking is: Let’s get one side of the ball squared away first. That’s certainly one way to go about team building. But the thought of the Redskins defense without its four-time Pro Bowl cornerback is enough to make any fan shudder. Coach Joe, if he pulls off this deal, had better have a bunch of touchdowns in that playbook of his.

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