While he may get into character later in the season, so far Portis has played it straight. "I really would love to [dress up again]," Portis says, "but it was in such high demand that it was taking the fun out of it."
Portis says Taylor's death forced him to think more about his own legacy. He's having an MVP-caliber season, rushing for 995 yards in nine games (his career high is 1,591 in 2003, with the Denver Broncos) and averaging 5.0 yards per carry. That productivity has helped Campbell's emergence and is a key reason why Washington's coaching transition from Joe Gibbs to Jim Zorn has gone so smoothly. After Zorn took over last February, he was so impressed by film of the Redskins running game from 2007 that he has barely touched Gibbs's rushing game plan.
He has also given Portis the latitude to contribute his own ideas. In Week 2 against New Orleans, Portis was struggling to gain yards out of the I formation behind fullback Mike Sellers; Portis kept running up on Sellers's back before Sellers could set up his block. On the sideline Portis suggested to the coaches that he line up a few yards deeper behind Sellers, giving the fullback a head start on the block. After gaining five yards on his first four carries, Portis finished the game with 96 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.
Against Philadelphia on Oct. 5 Portis felt comfortable enough with Zorn to suggest a draw play on fourth-and-one late in the fourth quarter. Zorn went with that call, Portis gained three yards, and the Redskins won the game. "As we ran the play, he willed his way for the first down," Zorn said. "I had a great view of his grit and our offensive line's grit on that play. He called it, he ran it and he got it."
Not every conversation between Zorn and Portis has gone well, though. The two had words during the Redskins' 25--17 win on Oct. 26 in Detroit, after Portis had left the game to fix his equipment, then tried to reenter for running back Shaun Alexander without informing Zorn or running backs coach Stump Mitchell. "In my mind Shaun is in there until Clinton goes to Stump or Stump comes to me and says Clinton's ready to play," Zorn said afterward.
Zorn and Portis later said the incident was a miscommunication, but it also brought to light Portis's pride and his sensitivity to questions about his durability, one of the issues he faced coming out of Miami in 2002. At 5'11" and 195, he was considered by some too small to be a complete back. The Broncos drafted him in the second round, 51st overall. "The knock on me was attitude, size, questionable hands, not being able to get it done," says Portis, who's now 220 pounds. " T.J. Duckett, William Green, DeShaun Foster. Those are the guys who [were drafted] in front of me. You combine all three guys' careers, it's nowhere close to me." And it's not just yardage. Portis has earned a reputation as one of the best blocking backs in the game. "I didn't just start blocking this year," he says. "All my career I've been blocking. You watch film, I could always take a pounding."
Portis's yards per carry dipped from 4.3 in 2005 to 4.1 in '06 (when he missed eight games with a broken right hand) and 3.9 last season. It was fair to wonder if his body was beginning to break down. Instead of spending the off-season in Miami, Portis chose to work out at the Redskins' facility in Ashburn, Va., lifting weights alongside teammates only steps from the coaches' office. Says Zorn, "What he did in the off-season, he's benefiting from and we're benefiting from."
Even though Portis is thriving, he hasn't forgotten the critics who've questioned him throughout his career, those who called him a product of the talent around him at Miami and, later, of the complex blocking schemes of the Broncos' offensive line.
After beginning his NFL career with two 1,500-yard seasons in Denver, Portis and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, sought to renegotiate his contract to bring it in line with the league's other topflight backs. Instead, the Broncos gave Rosenhaus permission to shop Portis. Washington, in the market for a running back, traded shutdown corner Champ Bailey and a second-round pick to Denver for Portis, a deal met with skepticism in a D.C. market accustomed to the power of John Riggins and Stephen Davis. Eyes opened wider after the Redskins signed Portis to an eight-year deal worth $50.5 million.
"My first year in Washington, it wasn't really doubt, but I began to let [media criticism] leak in and to feel like, Damn, can I do this?" Portis says. "I had 1,300 yards, and they talked about me like I had fallen off the face of the earth. I really felt bad, like I didn't do what these people brought me here to do. After that I stopped reading articles. I stopped listening to the outside world. I said, 'I'm going to go about my business and leave it on the field.'"