Former quarterback and quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn was pretty evenhanded with the pass and the run as a rookie coach in 2008. Zorn’s Washington Redskins dropped back only four more times a game than they handed off.
However, Zorn reverted to his roots during his offense’s impotent first three games of 2009 - two defeats and an ugly victory - with a 62-38 pass-run ratio.
With ace running back Clinton Portis having added a tender calf to the lingering bone spurs in his ankles and with the bumbling Redskins trailing the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers by 10 after Sunday’s first quarter, it wouldn’t have been a big surprise if Zorn tried to make the game an aerial show.
That was especially true because Portis had produced just 19 yards on his seven first carries against the NFC’s worst defense.
Instead, Zorn relied on the run the rest of the way, running and passing 16 times each over the second and third quarters before running on seven of their eight plays in the fourth (not counting kneel-downs) as the Redskins held on for the much-needed 16-13 victory.
“I’m thrilled,” Portis said. “I think the line was thrilled. As a team, we [were] thrilled that we stuck with the run being down 10-0.”
Campbell’s turnover-filled first half - two interceptions and a fumble - helped Zorn continue to feed Portis, but the coach also sent a message to his players about the banged-up running back’s importance to the Redskins.
After getting no more than 19 carries in the first three games - including just 12 in the loss to the Detroit Lions in which he injured the calf - Portis ran 25 times for 98 yards Sunday. It was his highest yardage total since Week 12 last season.
“Clinton’s been asking for [the ball],” center Casey Rabach said. “Everyone [on the offensive line has] been asking for it. Everybody knew what we were capable of. We beat on ‘em, beat on ‘em, beat ‘em, and we just wore ‘em out.”
But Portis, who passed Hall of Famer Earl Campbell for 26th on the NFL’s career rushing list with 9,483 yards, didn’t wear out. He ran for 29 yards on six carries in the fourth quarter, just shy of 5 an attempt.
“This was the first game we actually had a rhythm,” said Portis, whom Zorn embraced on the sideline as time expired. “The offensive line got going, and [fullback] Mike Sellers got going and myself. It’s easy to run behind when the guys got confidence. It’s just one win, but this game will have some significance in knowing guys wanted me to carry the team.”
Even if he was a game-time decision even to play.
“It was a matter of having the energy and not letting my teammates down,” Portis said. “It’s really going to be impossible to keep me off the field. Unless I got a cast or some crutches, I’m playing. Once you step off the field, you can’t make no excuses.”
Portis, whose myriad injuries helped make him a shadow last December of the NFL’s leading rusher he was at midseason, is a diva during the week but a warrior on Sundays.
“[Portis] takes a beating,” Sellers said. “He missed a whole week of practice, but he came out and performed. God bless him.”
Zorn made Portis, Sellers and his offensive linemen smile in the fourth quarter by summoning decades-old memories of the Hogs and the Riggo drill.
“It showed a lot that he trusted us,” Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels said of his embattled coach. “He put the load on us, and we got it done. Anytime you got a Pro Bowl-caliber back and he’s clicking and the offensive line is consistently staying on their blocks, it’s going to be a good day.”