Every news source you hear this morning reports that the Washington Redskins will release star running back Clinton Portis as soon as today. Eighty-four games, 8,164 total yards and 49 touchdowns since joining the team, this seems a good time to look at the best 'Skins running back this decade.
Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan said during an interview at the NFL Combine late last week that high contract-value players like Portis should have the chance to test the market for his services...when that player was not going to be offered his next bonus to stay with the team. Portis in turn acknowledged that, if it was his time to go, he was ready to do so.
Portis joined the Redskins in 2004, the second controversial trade of Joe Gibbs's second run as Redskins head coach. Unlike Mark Brunell, Portis was young, 23, with his best years before him when he came to Washington. But the Redskins gave up Champ Bailey, the league's best shutdown corner, and a second round draft pick to acquire Portis.
Too many fans figured the Redskins got snookered by then Denver Coach Mike Shanahan on the deal. Not enough remember that Bailey forced the team's hand by refusing to accept Washington't contract offer. Bailey was made miserable by turmoil in the coaching ranks (three head coaches, five defensive coordinators) and a front office that didn't know how to win. He was not happy to be named a franchise player. Even with Joe Gibbs' return (I'm not sure Bailey knew who Gibbs was and what he meant to Washington), Bailey made plain that he was outta here when his franchise year was up.
Mike Shanahan built his reputation on a knack for discovering running backs. Clinton Portis was one of those finds. Not that Portis was a hidden gem. He was the star running back on the Miami Hurricanes National NCAA championship team. Never-the-less, he was a second round Draft selection by Denver. Pundits did not expect what Portis delivered in 2002 and 2003--3099 yards, 29 touchdowns, 5.5 average yards per carry. Portis was the best fantasy football back in those years. I know because I owned him.
Portis agitated to renegotiate his contract for a deal consistent with first round selectees. Shanahan held that Portis was a system back whose success was due more to his (Shanahan's) offensive scheme and the zone blocking than to Clinton's inate skill. Not the last time we would see the pattern of thought from Shanahan that star players are easily replaceable.
Shanahan also craved a shutdown corner and Bailey was the ticket. I suspect Shanahan would have accepted a straight swap of Portis for Bailey without that extra pick. Many fans saw Portis as over-priced goods because Gibbs and Snyder threw in the pick instead of using it.
But wait, there's more.
Gibbs used Portis as a between-the-tackles power rusher in the mold of John Riggins rather than the slashing edge rusher in Shanahan's West Coast offense. CP struggled in 2004, but would become Washington second leading rusher after Riggins. He led the team to the 2005 and 2007 playoffs with his rushing prowess.
For all the focus on the quarterbacks, Washington's failures in 2009 and 2010 has more to do with Portis' absence by injury than to any shortfall by Jason Campbell or Donovan McNabb.
Runs are important in both Gibbs' and Shanahan's offense. At his best, Portis scored once every 32 times he carried the ball. That's twice as productive as Ladell Betts who replaced him in 2006, and better than Ryan Torain in 2010.
Neither Torain nor any of the young backs Shanahan will turn to has matched Portis prowess as a pass blocker. Washington cannot retool the offensive line in one season. If the back can pass block as well as Portis did, the Redskins can free up Chris Cooley for a pass pattern. Cooley blocking is Cooley wasted.
Still need runs in a pass first offense
Mike shanahan never won a Super Bowl without John Elway. Elway never won one without Shanahan in three prior tries. Neither won a Super Bowl without strong running by Terrell Davis. Shanahan never won a Super Bowl with Champ Bailey who went to four Pro Bowls as a Bronco, but he might have won with Clinton Portis as lead rusher.
None of the above proves anything, but we Redskins fans hope that no Portis won't mean no Super Bowl for coach Shanny.
Point after: "Release" doesn't necessarily mean good-bye. Shanahan says he wants Portis to be free to test the market for his services. He no doubt expects Portis to find a thin market for his services. Portis says he'd like to stay. Long-time players say that kind of thing. Sanatana Moss said the same earlier this month. Both could re-sign with Washington at a lower salary. That would help with the salary cap. Moss and Portis would on the roster would also stand in the way of younger players taking the field.
Whether they leave now, or stay for another season, we are witnessing the sunset of the Joe Gibbs Gang. We owe a debt of gratitude to Portis and Moss, especially for those marvelous playoff runs in 2005 and 2007.