- The Washington Times - Friday, October 8, 2004

Already struggling to hang onto the ball and break the big runs that made him a star with Denver, Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis yesterday found a new foe to stiff-arm: the media.

Portis, at the center of a burgeoning debate about coach Joe Gibbs’ offense, blew off his weekly interview session because of unhappiness with unspecified recent coverage.

“I’ve got nothing to say,” Portis said as he walked away from a group of about 20 reporters. “The media made me look bad.”

The high-profile running back, who signed an eight-year, $50.5million contract after being traded from Denver this spring, generally speaks to the media only after games and at lunchtime on Thursdays.

Heading into Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens there is particularly high interest in Portis, given his struggles to date, a frank critique by Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Portis’ claim Sunday that the Cleveland Browns “knew every play we were doing.”

That comment by Portis sparked questions about Gibbs’ offense and whether, in the coach’s return from 11 years of retirement, the scheme is too predictable. Browns cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, for one, called the set “not that complicated.” But Redskins coaches roundly refuted Portis’ theory after reviewing game tape.

Assistant head coach for offense Joe Bugel was particularly critical of Portis early this week before the two apparently smoothed things over Wednesday. Bugel said they “shook hands” and “hugged each other.” But he also reiterated that Portis’ statement was unacceptable.

“Everybody was [frustrated after the game],” Bugel said. “But like I say, bite your tongue. Bite your tongue sometimes. Or you can say, ‘I stunk.’ That’s great news. Don’t [throw up some statement], you know what I mean?”

Overall, Bugel’s message was positive, and the veteran coach hopes the issue is in the past.

“I think he’s a great-hearted young man,” Bugel said. “We don’t usually make statements in the news to offend a player. It’s over with. It’s yesterday’s news now. My feelings have never changed for that young man.”

Lewis’ feelings for Portis aren’t nearly as warm. Following Monday’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Lewis refused to put Portis, a 2003 Pro Bowl pick, on the same pedestal as Chiefs three-time Pro Bowl back Priest Holmes.

“Like I said, Portis ain’t Priest,” Lewis said. “So don’t fool yourself now.”

Portis is an easy target for such comments these days. Sixty-four of his 369 rushing yards, the third-best total in the NFC, came on his first carry as a Redskin. Since then he is averaging just 3.4 yards a carry, and his three fumbles have played a key role in Washington’s three straight losses.

Among Portis’ weak spots is third-and-1 rushing, where he has just one conversion in three attempts. Forty-seven players in the NFL have better third-and-1 averages than Portis, who was dragged down on a particularly dubious effort Sunday to facilitate Washington’s second-half collapse.

Redskins coaches are making third-down situations an emphasis, stressing that conversions lead to first downs, more rushing opportunities, a weakening opponent and more late success in the running game.

“You’ve got to get first downs to get a chance to run the football,” Bugel said. “Our team is starting to understand that. Eleven guys on third-and-1 — you can’t walk off the field without the first down.”

Portis’ struggles perpetuate questions about whether he’s the right running back for Gibbs’ offense. Gibbs has made his position clear repeatedly since training camp: Backs come in all sizes, and each type can succeed.

A more recent criticism, though, is that Portis might not be patient enough to function in an offense that puts linemen into space and often has slow-developing run plays. Even Portis conceded Sunday that, given the Redskins’ struggles, “You try so hard to make a play, you end up hurting yourself. You get outside of your parameters, and you hurt your team.”

Nonetheless, the theory around Redskin Park is that it’s only a matter of time before Portis breaks off more big runs like the one he had in the opening win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“You saw what he could do the very first time he touched the ball,” tight end Walter Rasby said. “We just haven’t been able to get him off like that again. But the potential is always there. And when it’s always there, you keep sawing wood and eventually he’s going to bust out of the backfield.”

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