His was truly a shooting star—sometimes brilliant, often frustrating, never ordinary.
Yes, there have been colorful characters in burgundy and gold before. Troubled defensive end Dexter Manley springs to mind; as does legendary Hall of Fame running back John Riggins. But none have ever outshone Clinton Portis.
Redskins fans will definitely remember his presence on the field; perhaps more so in time, as his career settles slowly into the rear view mirror and historical perspective.
Few running backs of his era have been more adept at finding small seams in defenses arrayed to stop him—the byproduct of an often inept passing game during Portis’ seven years in Washington—and bursting into the defensive secondary.
Few have also been as frustrating once arriving there. In recent years Portis was increasingly, frustratingly, unable to make that one final, open-field move and beat that one remaining defender between him and the goal line. The money move—the move that turns big gains into a game-breaking scoring plays.
Few running backs in league history, let alone Redskins history, have ever been more physical. Portis introduced a generation of local fans to the concept and value of a reliable, sometimes brutish, backfield pass blocker.
Of course, at the end of the day, what history truly measures running backs by are numbers. Cold statistics. In that light, Clinton Portis shines...
His 6,824 career yards stand second in Redskins history to the 7,472 posted by Riggins. He achieved that total with 321 less carries than Riggins, averaging 4.2 yards per carry over his career to Riggins’ 3.7.
In 2005, as the Redskins’ sole consistent offensive threat (the passing offense ranked just 21st), with defenses primed to stop him, Portis set the Redskins single-season rushing record (1,516 yards) and led them to their first winning season and playoff appearance since 1999.
In 2008 he was voted to the Pro Bowl and named 2nd Team All-NFL (AP).
Sadly, Redskins fans will never know is just how good Portis might have been behind a solid offensive line, and/or complemented by a consistent NFL-caliber passing game. The league doesn’t keep stats on that kind of thing—they are unquantifiable—but as anyone who has closely followed Redskins’ offensive football of recent vintage can attest, the sad truth is that few running backs have ever faced more seven, eight and nine-man fronts than did Clinton Portis wearing burgundy and gold.
John Riggins had Joe Theismann and The Hogs. Clinton Portis, most assuredly, did not.
In putting his career into perspective, one has to also look at the post-season “Big Game” question. This will not be a particularly glowing aspect of Portis’ legacy resume. Riggins, by way of illustration, is not remembered as much for his career totals as he is for the remarkable string of playoff games in 1982, and to an even greater extent, for one transcendent moment. His 43-yard rumble to glory on fourth down, in the fourth quarter against the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII, became an instant all-time NFL Films highlight and secured the Washington Redskins their first championship in 40 years.
Portis will take no such transcendent moment into history.
He played in three post-season games, and produced unremarkable numbers. In 2005 he gained 53 yards on 16 carries and scored the team’s only offensive touchdown, in a 17-10 road wildcard win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The following week against the Seattle Seahawks, he went for 41 yards on 17 carries in a season-ending 20-10 loss.
Two years later, against Seattle in 2007, he carried 20 times for 52 yards in a 35-14 loss.
Great memories are made in big games. No one will remember that Portis toiled in poor overall offenses in those few big game opportunities, just that his production was pedestrian. As great as the Detroit Lions’ stellar running back and escape artist Barry Sanders was, he had no signature moment—no all-time, recognizable signature play on a truly big stage game. Portis may suffer a similar historical fate.
His greatest moment, ironically, may have come on his very first carry as a Redskin, in front of a full house at FedEx Field on opening day 2004. After an emotional off-season of intense hype following the unexpected return to football of Hall of Fame head coach Joe Gibbs, Portis burst off right tackle on the first offensive play of the season and sprinted to paydirt on a cathartic, 64-yard touchdown burst.
The Redskins won that day, and at 1-0, with their new, fleet young feature back quite literally off and running, Redskins fans could be forgiven if visions of offensive greatness once again dared dance in their heads. That offensive greatness never materialized, but it wasn’t for Portis’ lack of effort and stretches of occasional brilliance.
Which brings us, by necessity, to the other side of the Portis coin. The off-field antics, the often head-shaking candor with the mike, the seemingly total lack of an internal censor. No discussion of his career can be complete without wondering how history will remember his off-field incarnation.
Almost six years since we last saw them, it is already hard to put Dr. I Don’t Know, Southeast Jerome, Sheriff Gonna Getcha, Dolla Bill, Reverend Gonna Change, Coach Janky Spanky, The Ghost of Southeast Jerome, Kid Bro Sweets, Choo Choo, et al, into context. If you don’t know who those people are, you probably weren’t living in Washington DC in 2005. One has to wonder, in ten years, how those of us who saw him play, and lived his uniqueness every day, will remember the outlandish costumed characters that showed up at pressers that season.
And what will we think of Portis’ slow but inexorable evolution into an apparent sense of entitlement? The sense Redskins fans got, anecdotally, fairly or unfairly, was that over the years Portis came to see himself as somewhat above and apart from many of his teammates. No one ever questioned his heart on the field—the man was a warrior. But his commitment off the field, physically and as a locker room presence, too often seemed lacking.
That last perception alone may be what keeps Clinton Portis from being remembered in the hearts of Redskins fans with the kind of fraternal warmth reserved for the likes of Art Monk and Darrell Green.
But there’s one thing we do know today. There will be other running backs in burgundy and gold who turn in great games, great seasons, maybe even great careers. Perhaps Portis’ heir apparent in 2011, young Ryan Torain, will be that man.
But don’t count on it. They don’t make them like Clinton Portis very often.
Love him, hate him, stare at him in bemusement or puzzlement, the undeniable truth is that Clinton Portis cast a giant shadow in his time in Washington. Healthy, he was the one player the Redskins’ weekly opponents, and their fans, had to take seriously week in and week out.
Behind pedestrian lines, and the focus of every defense he faced, he produced the second-best statistical career in the long storied history of the franchise.
And through it all he was never, even for one day, ordinary. If football is truly entertainment, few have ever worn the burgundy and gold to greater effect.
Redskins history should be kind to Clinton Portis.