- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2008

Even in what could be described only as a physical condition that was miles from pristine, Clinton Portis made it clear Sunday night how much the Washington Redskins‘ offense centers around his ability to sustain drives.

His evening against the Dallas Cowboys gave Washington more than anyone expected coming into the pivotal NFC East showdown, but Portis wasn’t himself. The inexorable punch that the running back gives the Redskins - the ability to grind out yards and force defenses to give a cushion to Washington’s conservative passing game - was missing.

In the end, Portis was overshadowed by Marion Barber, the Dallas Cowboys’ sledgehammer of a running back who punched out the yards Portis never got the chance to get. Despite gaining 68 yards on 15 carries, Portis never gave Washington its usual push. Barber, who gained 114 yards on 24 carries and wore the Redskins down with 14 fourth-quarter attempts, eventually dictated the way Dallas’ 14-10 win ended.

Portis, who did not practice all week because of a sprained knee, played a bigger role in the Redskins’ offense than they suggested he would leading up to the game. He was listed as questionable on the injury report, and coach Jim Zorn said Portis’ role would be limited if he played. But he carried nine times in the first half, and Washington’s first-quarter touchdown drive was set up almost solely through what the running back did on the ground.

“It was very interesting because during the week, we said right from the start, it was probably going to be a game-time decision. It truly was,” Zorn said. “It came right down to the pregame workout before anyone was in the stadium. What I saw was a guy that could make cuts. He actually warmed up and got some good acceleration, so I put him on the field.”

Quarterback Jason Campbell said Portis hid the pain well enough that it was tough to tell he was hurt by looking at him in the huddle. He showed early he was still able to handle a big workload.

Three of the Redskins’ first five plays were runs, the first one a 5-yard gain that pushed Portis past 1,000 yards for the season in just 10 games, the quickest he has reached that plateau. Portis got a total of five carries on the drive, gaining 29 yards and propelling the Redskins’ 49-yard scoring drive that gave Washington a 7-0 lead.

It was clear the running back was missing his usual leg drive, but his presence gave the Redskins just enough of a running game to facilitate the tentative but effective passing attack they used in the first half. That forced the Cowboys to load up just enough for Campbell to complete a series of checkdown passes to Mike Sellers and Chris Cooley with the occasional hitch route to Santana Moss thrown in.

“Once you get adrenaline and all that going, you block out all the pain,” Portis said.

But just four of the Redskins’ 19 offensive plays in the third quarter were runs; though Jason Campbell completed 11 of 15 passes he attempted, they went for only 80 yards.

Whether Portis wore down or Washington’s game plan shifted away from him is up for debate. What is clear is whatever balance he helped the Redskins achieve in the first half, they couldn’t sustain in the second.

The Redskins had the ball for just four minutes in the fourth quarter, handling the ball to Portis twice in that span. They were only able to gain 26 yards in the frame as the Cowboys’ relentless pass rush prevented Campbell from looking downfield.

By the end of the night, as Barber carried time and again and kept the Redskins’ offense on the sideline, it was clear that any Washington playoff push will require Portis to lead the way.

“Going into the game we felt we could take our shots,” tackle Jon Jansen said. “We thought we would have a better ground game than we did.”

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