- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs yesterday expressed support for running back Clinton Portis and said he intends to return the offense’s recent pass-heavy play-calling to equilibrium.

Portis rushed just six times for 17 yards in Sunday’s 16-7 loss at Pittsburgh. That backup Ladell Betts got eight carries for 34 yards sparked questions Gibbs might be shifting away from his $50million feature back in an unraveling season.

But yesterday the coach was emphatic when asked whether Portis has done anything to earn a lesser role in the NFL’s 30th-ranked and lowest-scoring offense.

“Absolutely not,” Gibbs said. “I would say Clinton Portis is one of the real plusses this year. I hope it doesn’t get lost in the fact we are losing games. This guy has been extremely tough. … He is somebody that we have great respect for and are looking forward to having a lot of years with.”

The real problem Sunday was that Gibbs called 40 passes compared to just 14 runs, letting the balance tip as Washington fell behind 13-0 in the first half. Because Betts is the third-down back and thus on the field in many passing situations, he saw extra time as Gibbs tried to open up the offense.

In addition, Betts was given the lead role on the Redskins’ 13-play touchdown drive in the third quarter. Yesterday Betts said getting five carries on that drive made it look like he was being featured over Portis. Perception might have been different if Washington hadn’t gone five plays or fewer on nine of its other 10 drives.

“It just so happened that we were moving the ball on that series,” Betts said.

Another issue was a minor chest injury Portis suffered. Although it wasn’t severe enough to keep him out of the game, coaches became more cautious for a brief period.

Betts had been ready for more extensive activity because he runs all the same plays as Portis during practice, taking perhaps 40 percent of the snaps to Portis’ 60 percent. But now Betts expects a reduced role in coming games, starting with Sunday’s against the New York Giants, as coaches focus on boosting Portis’ activity.

“They mentioned we’ll probably try to get Clinton the ball,” Betts said. “You don’t want to have a game where he only gets six carries. That’s just common sense. I’m assuming they’re going to try to get him the ball more, and that won’t happen to him.”

The shift away from the run is something that happened fairly predictably as Washington fell behind in four of its past five games. In losses to Green Bay, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the Redskins ran just 76 times to 183 passes.

At Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, however, the deficits generally were less than two touchdowns. It was to this issue that Gibbs seemed to allude when he talked about running more.

“Certainly we don’t want to rush the ball 17 [sic] times,” Gibbs said, referring to Sunday’s 14 runs. “That is not our desire. The last two weeks we did not get what we want out of the running game, and we have been trying to get the ball down the field.”

Wide receiver Rod Gardner is among the players hoping Portis returns to workhorse status, which might improve the Redskins’ dismal performance on first down (4.57 yards, third worst in the NFC) and get defenses off-balance.

“We’ve got to have Clinton toting the ball, putting up 100-yard days,” Gardner said. “When we’re not running the ball and getting into third-and-long, everybody knows what we’re going to do.”

Some other players on offense, meanwhile, defended as natural the tendency to move away from the run when trailing.

“There’s a sense of urgency there when you’re behind and it’s late in the game,” quarterback Patrick Ramsey said. “Hopefully you can maintain your balance. But at the same time, maybe the sense of urgency urges you to throw a little more.”

Portis declined comment as he left Redskin Park, though he has made it a habit not to speak the day after games. On Sunday, he admitted he didn’t like his infrequent use but didn’t get angry or criticize the coaches.

The irony in all the talk about Portis’ workload is that Gibbs was being questioned only a few weeks ago about using the back too much. Even with Sunday’s paltry effort, Portis is on pace to rush 354 times — 64 more than his career high with the Denver Broncos and just behind the No.2 total in Redskins history (356 by Stephen Davis in 2001).

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