Clinton Portis rarely took much notice of the admiring fans screaming his name at Redskins training camp, but one gruff voice caught his attention in early August. "Hey, Clinton," a man bellowed as Portis walked toward the practice field. "We want 3,500 yards from you this season." Portis whirled and squinted at the crowd. When he couldn't locate the source of the comical statement, he shook his head in bemusement and strolled on, convinced that some fans are far too giddy about his arrival in Washington.
But Portis understands that this is an exciting time for Skins fans. Joe Gibbs has returned as coach after a 12-year hiatus as a NASCAR team owner, and the offense has gone back to pounding the football. Washington was a dysfunctional, pass-happy, losing team in two seasons under coach Steve Spurrier, but Portis is the key to the attack now. He was acquired in an off-season trade with the Broncos, who received Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey and a second-round pick. "The expectations are high, but it's good to have that pressure on me," Portis says. "I'm going to be the man, and everybody knows that. We're not trying to fool anybody. They're going to hand me the ball and see what I can do with it."
Redskins faithful hope he can erase the memory of the team's ill-fated decision to release running back Stephen Davis after the 2002 season. Davis went on to become the heart of the Panthers' offense, gaining 1,444 yards last year and helping that team reach the Super Bowl. Washington needs Portis to have a similar impact. Last season the team ranked 22nd in the NFL in rushing (103.3 yards per game) and didn't have a runner gain more than 600 yards.
The 23-year-old Portis already has rushed for 3,099 yards and 29 touchdowns in two seasons. He has field sense, quickness and so much speed that Redskins wide receiver Laveranues Coles says, "The defense has to respect the fact that Clinton can go the distance every time he touches the ball." Adds offensive coordinator Don Breaux, "Clinton is out of the same mold as an Emmitt Smith or a Walter Payton. He's not very big [5'11", 205 pounds], but he's compact and attacks with the ball. He runs with some body-lean and power, and he doesn't mind sticking it up in there."
Though Portis is excited to be in Washington, he still is surprised at how quickly he went from Denver to D.C. He had just returned from the Pro Bowl in Hawaii early last February when the news broke that he was in a contract dispute. A second-round pick in the 2002 draft, Portis had signed a four-year contract that included a $1.29 million signing bonus but had a low annual base salary, so he wanted a new deal. He says coach Mike Shanahan told him that reworking the contract of a second-year player would set a bad precedent for the team. Two weeks later Portis was a Redskin.
The trade didn't bother Portis, but he's annoyed by the perception by some in the press that the Broncos had dealt him because they believe any back can gain 1,000 yards in their system. (Since 1995, a Denver back has picked up at least 1,000 yards in every season but one.) Portis points out that last season he averaged a league-high 5.5 yards per carry--tops among the recent 1,000-yard rushers in Denver.
The main question surrounding Portis is his durability. Gibbs has ridden big backs, such as John Riggins and Gerald Riggs, to great success in an offense that can demand 325 carries or more of the feature back. Portis did not have more than 290 rushing attempts in either of his first two seasons, he missed three games in 2003 with minor injuries, and he will be running behind a line that has already lost one starter for the season to injury.
For Gibbs's offense to be as effective this year as it was when the Redskins won three Super Bowls during his first run as coach, from 1981 through '92, Portis will have to have a standout season. "I don't feel like I have to prove to anybody that the Redskins got the better end of the deal," Portis says. "I just need to play like I know how. Even if I gain 1,200 or 1,300 yards and we make the playoffs, I won't be a failure. They brought me here for wins, not statistics." --J.C.
PLAYER ON THE RISE
> Fourth-year corner FRED SMOOT is the MVP in the secondary now that Champ Bailey's gone. He has all the skills of a cover corner--quickness, speed, body control, anticipation--and last season he proved his toughness by playing with a bruised sternum. Quarterbacks won't pick on him much, but he's a gambler and will make the most of whatever comes his way.