Friday, October 20, 2006

Al Saunders and Clinton Portis couldn’t be more different.

Al is 59 years old and in his 24th season of professional football. Clinton is 25 and in his fifth season.

Al is from California and would win a marathon between the two. Clinton is from Florida and would undoubtedly win a 40-yard dash.

Al is of the belief his star running back should play 90 percent of the snaps. Clinton is of the belief taking a play here or there to recuperate is the best way to go.

It’s that last difference that has Saunders and Portis — the Washington Redskins’ offensive architect and centerpiece, respectively — still searching for a middle ground. They’re in the same book, but not quite yet on the same page.

Saunders, who calls the plays, didn’t have the benefit of the preseason to experiment with what Portis likes from the new system. Portis, accustomed to being the focal point of an offense, is still getting used to his role.

“You would hope that each day is a little bit more of the process in finalizing what you want to do,” Saunders said. “It’s an ongoing thing. Clinton missed training camp, has been in and out of the lineup the first several games. I’m just starting to get the feel for him.”

Because the Redskins are 2-4 heading to Indianapolis on Sunday and have been wildly inconsistent on offense, the Saunders-Portis dynamic has been examined more closely.

“It’s obvious what I like,” Portis said yesterday at Redskin Park. “I have to adapt to his game plan. The game plan isn’t just suited to me. It’s a team effort and it’s about spreading the ball around and getting the touches to all of the play makers. Right now, I haven’t been getting the carries I expected to get, but it’ll come.”

Portis’ injury problems and his penchant for pulling himself out of the game have obviously limited his touches. He has 86 carries (six touchdowns) and 11 receptions this season; through six games last year, he had 123 carries (three touchdowns) and 13 receptions.

Against Tennessee, Portis had seven carries for 44 yards (6.3 average) in the first half as the Redskins led 14-13. In the second half, Portis had seven carries for 14 yards. While Saunders was knocked for not getting Portis enough carries, Portis just didn’t produce. Those seven carries gained 0, 6, 2, 1, 0, 4 (for a touchdown) and 1 yards.

On first down, Saunders gave Portis his chances, but he averaged only 2.0 yards on five carries, not including a fumble. From there, the play calling had to shift away from the run when faced with second- and third-and-long situations. This season, Portis is averaging 4.4 yards a carry on first down.

“We would have liked to use Clinton more because he’s our best ball carrier,” Saunders said.

Shifting in third person mode, Portis said of the Titans game: “Clinton would love to go all the time but at the same time, we have a game plan and if something changes, it changes. I can’t say, ‘Put the ball in my hands because I’ll make things happen.’ When they call my number, I’ll be there.”

Saunders talks with Portis during the week to get an idea of the five-plus running plays he feels most comfortable with. It’s not something Saunders can ascertain by watching practice.

“It’s more in the games, down after down, when you get a feel of what a guy needs to get going and what runs he does best,” Saunders said. “I went through the same thing with Priest and Larry.”

Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson were prolific producers in the Chiefs system but they got more opportunities because Kansas City didn’t have a Santana Moss or a player of Antwaan Randle El’s versatility. It was Tony Gonzalez and the lead running back.

In Portis’ first two seasons with the Redskins, he didn’t have to worry about a No. 2 or 3 receiver taking away his opportunities. Two years ago, the lone option at wide receiver was Laveranues Coles; last year, it was Moss.

In the four games that Portis has seen full duty this season, he has averaged 19 carries and 2.3 catches. Although the Redskins rank third in yards a snap (5.6), they’re 12th in yards a game (326.0) because they haven’t been on the field much — they have 26 fewer snaps than the opposition.

“Everybody wants to be a part of the game plan,” Portis said. “Somehow, someway, we have to find a way to stay on the field and get the ball to everybody. None of us are weapons now. We have to find a way to make more plays.”

The receiving opportunities have been limited by the shoulder injury sustained in the preseason opener at Cincinnati. The Redskins are regularly removing Portis from the game on third down so he doesn’t have to pass protect and the screen passes to running backs are centered around Ladell Betts. Betts has 18 catches to Portis’ 11.

“We’re trying to protect him from doing some things and getting him into condition to play successive plays and he has come out of the game several times on his own,” Saunders said. “He’s getting into better shape and his shoulder is better.

“It’s a long season and I would anticipate him being an extremely productive player. He runs hard, he’s a tough guy and goes 100 miles per hour. I would just like him to be out there more often.”

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