AFTER RETURNING to the NFL in early 2004, Redskins coach Joe Gibbs huddled with his assistants to watch film of running back Clinton Portis, whom Denver was shopping around the league, and decide whether he was durable enough to be the centerpiece of Gibbs's ball-control offense. What the Washington coaches saw was a runner who, despite his scatback size, displayed as much punch as pizzazz. The 5'11", 212-pound Portis's Houdini-like moves up the middle were followed by Mack truck hits on would-be tacklers, and he delivered the same sort of blows when pass blocking. Soon afterward Gibbs traded Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey to Denver for Portis.
Gibbs's one-back system is tailor-made for a power runner in the mold of John Riggins, who helped Gibbs win his first Super Bowl, in 1983. Though three inches shorter and some 30 pounds lighter than Riggins, Portis fits the bill. His thick, muscular calves and tree-trunk thighs are out of proportion with his upper body. "If you want to make me a scatback, get me outside and I'll turn it on for you," says Portis, 24. "If you want me to run inside, I've got the heart to go inside time after time."
He showed his speed and power in a signature touchdown run early in the Redskins' 17-10 NFC wild-card playoff win over the Buccaneers last Saturday in Tampa. On first-and-goal at the Bucs' six-yard line, Portis darted to the left and was met at the two by safety Jermaine Phillips; Portis bowled him over and dived into the end zone for the game's first score. Otherwise, the Tampa Bay defense, the top unit in the NFL, dominated. Washington mustered only 120 yards, the lowest total by a winning team in playoff history; Portis was held to 53 yards on 16 carries. The Bucs crowded the line to stop Portis, trusting their excellent secondary to keep Pro Bowl wideout Santana Moss (two catches, 18 yards) in check.
Washington faces another formidable run defense (fifth best in the league) in Seattle this Saturday, but the Seahawks are not as packed up front as Tampa Bay. Their young, athletic defense is most concerned with preventing long passes, so the safeties stay back, leaving run-stuffing duties to a stout line anchored by masive tackle Marcus Tubbs. When the teams met on Oct. 2 in Washington, the Redskins dominated time of possession and won in overtime, 20-17, with Portis rushing 25 times for 90 yards.
Portis has been carrying much of the load for the last two months. After the Redskins dropped to 5-6, he turned up his game, gaining more than 100 yards in each of Washington's five straight wins to end the regular season. He finished with a career-high 352 carries and a franchise-record 1,516 rushing yards. "He's as tough as any of the guys we've had," says Bubba Tyer, a team trainer for 34 years. "He's as tough as Riggo."
And if the Redskins' postseason run is to continue, he'll have to be every bit as productive.