June 17, 2011

The Clinton Portis Legacy

When the Washington Redskins released running back Clinton Portis on March 1, 2011, the curtain came down on one of the most mercurial, memorable careers in team history.

His was truly a shooting starsometimes 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.


16 comments:

Anonymous said...

"None have shown as bright" as Clinton Portis? Put down the crack pipe, kid. He won nothing. I don't know if you're young or stupid, but go Google John Riggins single-handedly winning the Superbowl over the Dolphins.

Now take Portis very best run as a Redskin. Watch that. See what I mean? Portis can't carry Riggins jock-strap.

Dressing up like a clown doesn't make you a football player, son. Portis cost way too much to get, never produced the wins despite some tough running, and was a distraction the whole time he was here.

Stop slobbering, kid.

Anonymous said...

What he should be remembered for is being part of one of the dumbest trades a team ever made.

The Redskins traded the best CB in football, Champ Bailey, AND and a 2nd round pick for a system running back. It was a positively stupid move. The Skins should have been able to get Portis for a 2nd round pick alone, which means the best CB in football was basically a throw-in. At the very least, it should have been Portis AND a 1st rounder for Bailey... Denver should have been putting the pick in.

Portis was a system back in Denver and he excelled in that system. Yes, Portis is an above-average running back, but he is not great or even very good. His numbers here were inflated by getting a ton of carries. His ypc was not impressive. He was treated and paid like a top 5 running back, but he was not one.

His performance certainly never justified what the team gave up for him. The team could have duplicated his production with that 2nd round pick alone and kept Bailey. Heck, could have drafted Burner Turner in the 2004 draft and kept Bailey. I'll take Bailey and Turner over Portis. I'll take Bailey and any RB drafted in 2004 over Portis.

(And because I know it will be said, Bailey was NOT gone. He wanted a better contract so he played the same role every star player plays to pressure the team into paying him one. Any indication about testing the waters was leverage, not a guarantee he was leaving. The Redskins could have paid him and made him happy. Everyone just keeps trying to justify the crappy trade by relying on this, and it is just revisionism. Moreover, even if it is true that Bailey wanted out, the team should have received a 1st rounder from someone.)

Maybe it is unfair to judge Portis by that trade because he didn't ask the team to make a stupid trade. But the fact remains the team did it, and Portis had a heavy cross to bear. He was above average, but never justified what we gave up for him.

Mark "Om" Steven said...

The first commenter didn't read the piece. Anonymous driveby flame nonsense.

The second anonymous comment raises the question of whether or not one is familiar with the reason the Redskins traded Bailey in the first place.

If one doesn't know the background of the Bailey trade, it absolutely looks like the 2nd rounder they gave up was a very steep price.

If one remembers that Champ orchestrated his way out of town, however, and why, and that the Redskins were forced to work a trade get anything of value for him, trade looks a little different. Particulary in light of the fact Portis turned out to be the second leading rusher in franchise history, during one of its worst eras.

Johnny Blades said...

Fact: Portis put this team on his back more than any other single player in this woeful Dan Snyder era.

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Absolutely.

I think what we're seeing is the first real "great" Redskin of the internet age. With today's media culture comes tremendous notoriety and fame, but also the klieg-lighted, unfiltered analysis of the armchair general masses.

Somewhere, George Orwell is smiling.

Anonymous said...

I love the play when he jumped over the guy he was blocking to throw another block for Brunell that was all heart

Anonymous said...

OM says: "The second anonymous comment raises the question of whether or not one is familiar with the reason the Redskins traded Bailey in the first place"

I am the guy you were referring to, and I do know about the circumstances of the Bailey trade and why it was stupid. Note: in my original comment, I said:

"(And because I know it will be said, Bailey was NOT gone. He wanted a better contract so he played the same role every star player plays to pressure the team into paying him one. Any indication about testing the waters was leverage, not a guarantee he was leaving. The Redskins could have paid him and made him happy. Everyone just keeps trying to justify the crappy trade by relying on this, and it is just revisionism. Moreover, even if it is true that Bailey wanted out, the team should have received a 1st rounder from someone.)"

Somehow you missed me saying this. I was predicting you would make the exact argument you did.

The reality is--as opposed to the post-trade revisionism used to justify the trade--is that Bailey was angling for a better contract. Like every player who wants a better deal, they threaten to holdout, leave and generally make noise in order to get what they want.

Over the years there have been several attempts to make up stories to explain why Bailey was worthless in trade value in order to defend and make it feel less like it a complete raping that it was.

There was absolutely no truth to any rumor about Bailey's wife demanding he leave for marital reasons. It was just message board-generated gossip made up by some fan. There is no truth that he ever definitively stated he would never play for the Redskins under any circumstances. He just wanted to be paid like a star.

But here is the silliness of the argument: even if Bailey demanded a trade, that doesn't make him worthless because there is still a market which drives the price. Guys who force their way on the open market still can demand value in return. And a guy of Bailey's caliber could have and would have demanded a 1st round pick if anyone competent was running our team.

Likewise, Portis wasn't worth much more than a 2nd. RBs are worth that much. You can look at what Shaun Alexander and Edge James were traded for around the same time period. So the team should have been able to get Portis for almost a 2nd. That makes Bailey a throw-in in the deal. We gave away the top CB in football for nothing.

It was one of the largest fleecings I can recall in the NFL since the Ricky Williams trade or maybe even since the Hershel Walker trade. You don't give away a player like Bailey. But that is what the team did.

Mark "Om" Steven said...

I saw what you wrote, Anonymous. I was hoping you might come back with something a little more concrete. Instead you have simply stated your anonymous opinion again as fact.

You flatly state that Bailey’s personal issues were contrived after the fact and nothing more than fan-generated rumors. I disagree. And I base the assertion that Bailey’s off-fiels situation DID factor into the equation on first-hand information I had access to at that time.

I guess anyone still reading here can decide for themselves if they lend credibility to either of us.

A lot goes into trades in professional sports—and some are far more complicated than others. The real mistake is to try to assess one in empirical terms from the outside in, with the benefit of hindsight, and presume to have it all figured out.

Anonymous said...

And see, there you go. Vague references to Bailey's personal issues that only certain internet message board people have personal, secret knowledge about.

The net result is, as I said, a message board-generated rumor. There is not one single shred of published, sourced evidence that Bailey's departure had anything to do with marriage issues.

You accuse me of being vague in my statements, and then respond by saying "I have this insider info that I know to be the truth so you are wrong."

The truth is that all of this stuff came out about Champ after the fact and on messageboards as an attempt to rationalize and justify the fleecing.

The actually publicized and sourced statements make clear that Bailey was just after a better contract and was perfectly willing to accept one from Snyder if the number was right.

But Snyder decided to not pay him and instead used him as a throw-in on a deal.

Again, Shaun Alexander and Edge James show that the market price of a Star RB is not much more than a 2nd rounder. We gave the Broncos that market price by giving a 2nd rounder. And we threw in the best CB in football.

It was a complete FLEECING. Bailey should have brought back a 1st round pick in ANY trade.

Mark "Om" Steven said...

No, Oldfan. Not just internet message board people. People who grasp the concept of public information versus non-public. It's not a particularly difficult concept, just one that drives some people to absolute distraction.

Believe what you will.

Rich said...

How many championships did 'Champ' Bailey bring to Denver? A team with a SB-winning coach and more revered offensive system?

I would think people who look to discount Portis' Washington legacy because it didn't include many playoff wins should consider how realistic it ever is that one great non-QB player will 'make' a team in the NFL.

Denver had an excellent defence for a few seasons, but also Champ was part of historically bad Bronco defences. Additionally, the Redskins during the same time still managed to field top 10 defences despite not having Champ.
And if you ever watched Portis play for Denver you would know that he was far from a 'system back' - he took the lanes the system gave him and routinely turned them into electrifying big plays that no Denver RB has done since.

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Well said, Rich. I think Portis' legacy will eventually shed the baggage of 1) the awful offensive teams he played for in Washington, 2) the disdain he brought on himself in some people's eyes with his off-field persona, and 3) his inevitable tie to the Champ Bailey trade.

Few Redskins have ever done more with less for this franchise. His numbers alone attest to that. I stand by the hopeful assertion that history will judge him more kindly among the balance of the Redskins' faithful with the passage of time.

Anonymous said...

to everyone dogging the guy that wrote this. hes simply showing respect for a great player that carried our sorry behides to the playoff on more than one occassion. the trade denver made wasnt a bad one mayb the 2nd rnd pick was a bit much but his 1st two yrs in denver were both 1500 yrd seasons to go along w/ a 5.5 rushing average n about 15 scores in each season. i dnt wanna hear "oh he was a product of the system" reality is those are GREAT numbers. if you want to blame anyone blame joe gibbs for CP "not being worth what we gave". when Portis was coming out of Miami he was about 5'11" 195 lbs with world class speed w/ a 4.26.. he was a speed back made for a zone blocking scheme and gibbs figured hed turn him into a 220 lbs power back! point is CP was worth Champ if he would have been used right and made to play by his strenghs.. if they wanted to put 25 pounds on a guy they should have just takin a short cut and went out n got a 220 lbs power back. not saying portis didnt give me a headache sometimes but everyone straight dogging a guy that carried us at many points during his 7 yrs w/ us needs to stop and look at the facts.

Kevin said...

to everyone dogging the guy that wrote this. hes simply showing respect for a great player that carried our sorry behides to the playoff on more than one occassion. the trade denver made wasnt a bad one mayb the 2nd rnd pick was a bit much but his 1st two yrs in denver were both 1500 yrd seasons to go along w/ a 5.5 rushing average n about 15 scores in each season. i dnt wanna hear "oh he was a product of the system" reality is those are GREAT numbers. if you want to blame anyone blame joe gibbs for CP "not being worth what we gave". when Portis was coming out of Miami he was about 5'11" 195 lbs with world class speed w/ a 4.26.. he was a speed back made for a zone blocking scheme and gibbs figured hed turn him into a 220 lbs power back! point is CP was worth Champ if he would have been used right and made to play by his strenghs.. if they wanted to put 25 pounds on a guy they should have just takin a short cut and went out n got a 220 lbs power back. not saying portis didnt give me a headache sometimes but everyone straight dogging a guy that carried us at many points during his 7 yrs w/ us needs to stop and look at the facts.

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Kevin, you can say *that* again. ;)

From what I've seen, most Redskins fans appreciate CP and his contribution here. There is a vocal minority that seems to hold him responsible to some extent for the specifics of the Bailey trade and the awful offenses (and team in general) the team fielded around him, but I'm guessing they too will mellow over time and see the man for the player he was and not the circumstances that be played under.

Hope so anyway. Portis' name will be a part of Redskins lore--and should be.

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