Clinton Portis had a message for three of his fellow 1,000-yard rushers who practiced Wednesday, three days after the New York Giants battered him during the 12th game of the regular season.
“If you come out and push it [on Wednesday], congratulations to those guys who can play on Sunday and practice Wednesday and Thursday,” he said. “For me, seven years in, the wear and tear on my body, I can’t.”
Atlanta’s Michael Turner, the New York Jets’ Thomas Jones and Chicago’s Matt Forte practiced that day and didn’t appear on the injury report, but Portis watched the Washington Redskins‘ afternoon workout from the sideline. Long admired for his ability and willingness to play hurt - and play well - respect for Portis in the Redskins’ locker room has only grown recently. In the past seven games, Portis has suffered six different injuries.
“Every running back in the NFL has to be a tough guy, particularly the elite running backs, and Clinton is certainly an elite running back,” left guard Pete Kendall said. “He’s as tough as they come, but most running backs have to be if they’re going to have longevity in this game at that position. You have to be a tough son of a gun.”
Portis, second in the NFL with 1,228 rushing yards, is immune to injury talk. He’s used to feeling beat up in December. And to him, with the Redskins in a 1-3 rut and fighting for their postseason lives, there isn’t another option: He’s going to play.
“Whole body is sore. Getting old, you know?” he said. “[We’re through] Week 13 of the season and it’s rough out there. … We have a tough four-game stretch and every win you can get right now at this time of the season is critical. For us, we need to win to change morale and get us back on track and keep our hopes alive.”
During the Redskins’ 4-1 start, Portis stayed away from injuries that kept him out of practice. His luck soon ran out:
Hip flexor against St. Louis on Oct. 12. Ankle at Detroit on Oct. 26. Left knee and right leg against Pittsburgh on Nov. 3. Rib cage at Seattle on Nov. 23. Neck against the New York Giants last Sunday.
Through 96 games and 1,965 rushing attempts, Portis has injured his ankle, knee, neck, shoulder, ribs, rib cage, hand, calf, pectoral, heel and chest. He’ll face the Ravens’ third-ranked rush defense Sunday night, forgetting the long-term impact of putting his body through a weekly grinder. The same goes for the rest of his veteran teammates.
“You have to be comfortable with the decision you made,” said Kendall, in his 13th year. “You don’t walk out of this game the way you came into it.”
The physical price that NFL players pay later in life is often steep. Three examples are Redskins coach Jim Zorn, assistant head coach/running backs Stump Mitchell and offensive coordinator Sherman Smith, who played a combined 351 games.
“You don’t ever think about how you’re going to ache,” said Zorn, 55. “When I started aching, I was about 40. I started going, ‘Oh.’ At about 42, I went, ‘Oh!’ At 45, I went, ‘I got it.’ That’s part of the sacrifice that all these men make in their careers. It’s punishing every week.”
Zorn suffers from arthritis in his left ankle that prevents him from running, torn cartilage in a knee that needs surgery and a back that “goes out every once in a while.”
Smith, 54 and Mitchell, 49, can relate to Portis. Both were running backs; Smith carried 834 times and Mitchell 986 times. By this point of the season, Smith said, “You expect to be sore, you expect to have something hurting. Mentally, you had to play through it.”
All those carries take their toll, even years later.
“Everything [is sore], to be perfectly honest,” Mitchell said. “My knees, my right shoulder, my neck. It’s unbelievable the way my body feels - I definitely feel the effects.”
Managing the workload
Portis has played 567 of the Redskins’ 773 offensive snaps (73.4 percent) and his 255 carries rank third in the NFL. But with an eye on having him thrive and not just survive on Sundays, Zorn and his staff have begun to curtail Portis’ playing time.
The past two weeks, Portis has been on the field for only 11 of the Redskins’ 28 third-down snaps, saving him the pounding that comes with pass protecting. Additionally, he averaged 17 rushes the past four games, compared with 25.3 in the four games before that.
During the week, Portis stands behind the offense during practice to get a feel for the blitz pickups and where the running lanes will be. Off the field, he and Mitchell watch extra video of the opponent to develop an understanding of the potential defensive fronts.
Every day, Portis receives treatment. When he was trying to prepare for the Dallas game Nov. 16, Portis received house calls from director of rehabilitation Larry Hess. The Redskins denied requests to interview Hess and director of sports medicine Bubba Tyer.
“It’s always the same with running backs: Fight through and find a way to get to the game,” Portis said.
Smith said the main drawback to not practicing is when Portis makes a cut at full speed and his timing is off. But Zorn has been forced to ease his desire to have Portis practice since he isn’t blowing assignments on game day.
Portis found a way to practice on a limited basis Friday and hopes to reignite the Redskins’ playoff aspirations Sunday night.
“Certain players make a special effort to get out there on Sunday,” right tackle Jon Jansen said. “I think he’s done a great job of sucking it up and playing.”