He isn’t supposed to lead the NFL in rushing. Not in a scheme designed by new Washington Redskins coach Jim Zorn, a disciple of the pass-centric West Coast offense.
But seven weeks into the season, that’s exactly where Clinton Portis is - atop the league with 818 yards.
“I feel good,” said Portis, 27. “I feel like the opportunity is there. It’s having a healthy line and a passing attack … making defenses play honest. The line’s blocking great and I’m following my blockers. I’m making the right read … and going from there.”
Portis is on pace for 373 carries, two shy of the Redskins record set by Hall of Famer John Riggins in 1983. The seven-year veteran needed 352 carries to rush for a franchise-record 1,516 yards in 2005.
Only Tennessee, Atlanta and Baltimore have devoted a larger percentage of their offensive snaps to the run than Washington. Despite having a reliable quarterback and skilled pass catchers at his disposal, Zorn has called 234 runs and 217 passes - a development even Zorn says he didn’t expect.
“I’m not trying to create any particular image or anything like that,” Zorn said. “We’re still running the [West Coast] system. I’m just calling the runs more than one time a game.
“We’ve got an offensive line that can drive-block. We’ve got a back that can slash and can get skinny in very tight areas. It’s really been a great mix of run and pass to keep the [defense] off-balance. And we’ve been ahead and able to keep the ball on the ground. … If I go into a meeting and say, ‘We’re changing it, men, the West Coast is a passing game, I forgot,’ I could have a problem.”
Instead, it’s opposing defenses that have struggled to stop Portis and the Redskins. With the help of his offensive assistants, in particular newcomers Stump Mitchell and Sherman Smith and holdover Joe Bugel, Zorn has done a masterful job of merging the West Coast passing scheme with the running attack of Bugel and former coach Joe Gibbs.
“Stump’s a big part of the reason why I’m making that first read,” Portis said. “He can tell you what to look for. He knows the offense inside and out.”
Mitchell, now in his eighth straight year working with Zorn, and reserve back Shaun Alexander, the 2005 MVP with Seattle, both said Portis fits the offense well.
“One cut and go - that’s pretty much what Clinton did in Denver, and that’s pretty much what we do,” Mitchell said.
Alexander said he and the Pro Bowl left side of Seattle’s line, Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson, helped change Mike Holmgren’s offense and influenced Zorn.
“If you look at the dawn of the offense with the 49ers, it was so good throwing the ball that they rarely used the back,” Alexander said. “The same thing happened in Green Bay and some of the other places it spread to, like Philadelphia. They thought, ‘If they stop this pass, we’ll use that pass.’ But Coach Holmgren got to Seattle and he put running in there. When they stopped his pass, he had this other pass plus this run. Jim has taken that same idea. It’s not a running offense, but he’s playing to our strengths.”
Which is running the ball behind five veteran lineman.
“It’s the nature of this team to run the ball,” said center Casey Rabach said. “Clinton [knows] what we do well, how we set up blocks for him. And we know what Clinton’s going to do, where’s he going to make his cuts when the defense gives us a certain read. Knowing what the guys next to you [are] going to do definitely helps. And Clinton makes our job easier.”