Tuesday, October 19, 2004

In the visiting locker room at Solider Field on Sunday afternoon, Ladell Betts asked a reporter for teammate Clinton Portis’ final rushing numbers in the Washington Redskins’ 13-10 win over Chicago.

Informed that Portis had finished with 36 carries for 171 yards, Betts did a double-take.

“36 for 171?” the backup tailback said with astonishment. “That’s not normal.”

It certainly wasn’t the previous four weeks, when Portis at times struggled to surpass the 50-yard mark — one of several factors leading to the Redskins’ four-game losing streak.

Joe Gibbs, though, had been envisioning Portis having performances like Sunday’s on a regular basis from the moment the Redskins acquired the 23-year-old running back.

It just took six weeks for the Redskins and Portis to figure out how to make it happen.

“Nobody was in this system last year,” Portis said. “It takes a while to mesh. You’re going to go through your growing pains, but hopefully we’re done with them.”

For five weeks, Washington tried to get Portis yards by running him up the middle or around the corner behind a full complement of blockers. Gibbs frequently left five offensive linemen, a tight end, an H-back and even a receiver bunched in tight to help pave the way for his star running back.

The result? The lightning-quick Portis had nowhere to go, no holes to hit at full speed.

Against the Bears, Gibbs and Co. decided to spread things out. Instead of an H-back, they inserted James Thrash or Taylor Jacobs as a third receiver. Instead of lining up tight end Walter Rasby next to the tackle, they flanked him out as a receiver.

The result? Portis suddenly had space to maneuver, leading to his most productive day as a Redskin.

“We just gave them different looks, something they hadn’t seen before, something they couldn’t key on,” said H-back Mike Sellers, who served as Portis’ lead blocker on several runs. “I think that’s what benefited us the most.”

Portis used all the extra space to compile six runs of at least 10 yards, only one less than he had in the season’s first five games combined.

“That 2- and 3-yard stuff, that’s for the birds,” Portis said. “I’m the big-play guy. I want 8, 10, 12 yards. Eventually, it wears the defense down.”

Somehow, it didn’t wear Portis down. Hardly a bulky running back at 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, Portis is showing the durability required to carry the ball 36 times (two shy of his career high).

His 153 rushing attempts easily lead the NFL and put Portis on pace for a 408-carry season. That would shatter John Riggins’ club record of 375 (set in 1983) and would be well beyond Portis’ career-high 290 rushing attempts from a year ago.

Whereas there have been some questions about Portis’ ability to hold up for a full season, neither he nor his coach is concerned about possible wear and tear.

“What we try to tell Clinton is if at any point he’s tired at all, we want him out of there,” Gibbs said. “We’ve got Ladell. We’ve got other backs. We told Clinton, ‘Don’t stand there if you’re winded at all. Keep yourself fresh.’”

Of all the personnel moves the Redskins made over the offseason, Portis’ acquisition from Denver probably was the most significant. As he went, so would Washington’s offense.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that the Redskins are 2-0 when Portis surpasses the 100-yard mark (he had 148 in the season-opening win over Tampa Bay) and 0-4 when he fails to reach triple-digits.

The question now is a simple one: Can Portis and the Redskins continue to run the ball effectively, or was Sunday’s performance an aberration against a struggling Bears defense?

“We’ve played six games, haven’t we? And I think he’s got [593] yards or something,” Gibbs said. “I think that says to you, to all of us, that it’s not a one-game thing. The guy’s an exceptional back.”

Maybe so, but Portis’ true talents only reveal themselves when the Redskins are able to create space for him to run. They accomplished that Sunday by spreading the field, but with quarterback Mark Brunell slogging his way through shaky performance after shaky performance, opposing defenses soon might forget about defending the pass and simply key on Portis.

“You’ve got to be able to do everything up here. You can’t afford to be one-dimensional,” Gibbs said. “We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen to us. If you don’t throw as well, you’re not going to rush as well. [Sunday] that wasn’t the case, but it can be.”

For now, the Redskins are simply content to enjoy a bye week following a victory, one that finally showcased their star running back and re-energized a team that looked on the brink of collapse.

“When we run the ball the way we want to,” Portis said, “it’s hard for teams to beat us.”

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