Not surprisingly, despite having 2,052 carries on his resume and approaching an age when most running backs begin to decline, Clinton Portis predicted Thursday after the Washington Redskins’ first training camp practice that a recommitment to offseason training will ensure several additional years of production.
Somewhat surprisingly, Portis is similarly confident in coach Jim Zorn’s ability to help the Redskins return to the playoffs.
“I think we’re on the same page,” Portis said. “We talked, and what happened last year is over and done with. This year, I’m sure there will be something we don’t agree on, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like him or I don’t want him around or he doesn’t want me around.”
What happened last year was a series of sideline and behind-the-scenes confrontations between Zorn, a first-year coach trying to do things his way, and Portis, a star player who dictated his playing time and practice activity under the previous regime.
Portis and Zorn exchanged words on the sideline in Detroit, and Zorn criticized Portis for missed assignments against Baltimore. Two days later, Portis lashed out in a radio interview, sarcastically calling Zorn “a genius.” And those were just the public dust-ups.
But through several conversations in the offseason, the two have developed common ground. Portis never will develop into one of Zorn’s top allies in the locker room, but he has told Zorn that any problems will be handled internally. With Portis, of course, all bets could be off once the Redskins endure a losing streak or he’s unhappy with his workload.
“Our relationship has grown,” Zorn said. “He didn’t know me when I first came in, and I didn’t know him. … I think we have a very good relationship, but it’s because we communicate.”
Portis said one breakdown in communication between Zorn and the Redskins came on the final road trip of the season. The Redskins arrived in San Francisco on Dec. 26 - two days before the game - and Zorn scheduled a team meeting for 9 p.m. and curfew at 11. Portis said many players chafed at the mandate, adding there was “nearly” a team revolt against Zorn.
“Everybody was going to skip all of it,” he said of the meeting. “But we went. A lot of players spoke up. I spoke up.”
A veteran player said Portis was exaggerating.
“We were all disappointed to find out we had a curfew, but there was no rebellion,” the player said. “Only a few guys wanted to party all night.”
Added a second veteran: “I wasn’t aware of anything like that. If that was the case, it would be unfortunate.”
The San Francisco story was the only hint of controversy coming from Portis. He praised Zorn for allowing veterans to stay in their own homes during training camp and expects more give-and-take between the second-year coach and his players.
“It was just [Zorn] learning things,” Portis said. “This year, he came back with a chance to let us be men, staying at home and being responsible and leaving it on us.”
Said Zorn: “Even all the stuff [last year] - that’s all about trying to communicate and being up front with each other and knowing how each other feels. I’m trying to anticipate those issues [with Portis] before they rise up.”
Portis generally has three issues: offseason participation, practice and playing time. This year has represented a change. Portis attended several organized team activities instead of spending the entire winter in Florida. On Thursday, he was on the field for both workouts, taking regular repetitions with the first-team offense. And Zorn said he isn’t inclined to back off from keeping Portis in a workhorse role.
Portis carried at least 21 times in each game of the Redskins’ 6-2 start, including five consecutive 120-yard games. But as the injuries mounted, his numbers bottomed out - a single 100-yard game and only four games of 22 or more attempts.
For being one of the NFL’s most violent runners on Sundays, Portis would like to be accorded Monday to Saturday for rest and recuperation - even if that means just watching practice from the sideline.
“Sometimes it takes until Sunday morning to recover and feel better, and then the adrenaline kicks in and I’m like, ‘All right, I got to give it,’ ” Portis said. “To fight through it in practice, your mindset isn’t ‘dig deep and then miss the game.’ If I’m going to take it during the game, I have to pace myself during practice.”
Portis, who will turn 28 on Sept. 1, has averaged 20.5 carries in 100 career games. The closest comparable active player is LaDainian Tomlinson, who carried 2,050 times before turning 28. Tomlinson won the rushing title the next year, but he’s an exception. Edgerrin James’ production fell off, and even though Shaun Alexander was NFL MVP at age 28, it was his last 1,000-yard season.
Portis has had 325 or more carries in each of his four full seasons with the Redskins, and Zorn doesn’t anticipate trimming the load.
“In practice and in preseason, I have to [rest him] and I will, but I’ll have a hard time doing that [in games] when you have such a great running back standing there,” Zorn said. “He’s a tremendous running back, so he’s going to get carries.”
Portis’ modus operandi will remain the same.
“If I’m on the field, don’t rest me,” he said. “Let me give it all I got. If I can’t do it, put somebody else in.”