You want a midseason MVP? I'll take the guy on one knee. Clinton Portis does that often, you know. He rests every chance he gets. It has become a humorous point for his Washington Redskins teammates, who notice that during a fourth-quarter timeout or two-minute warning, Portis is down on bended knee, catching his breath.
Portis' act goes against football machismo, which suggests players are never supposed to openly display fatigue, but he doesn't care. He actually likes looking tired, then proving he's not. And he and the Redskins -- even after their ugly 25-17 win over the winless Lions -- have proven a lot so far. Nobody thought Portis would be closing so many wins in the fourth quarter. Not this year, at least. Not in the NFC East, football's toughest division, where the Redskins were supposed to stare up at the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles. Well, guess what? Washington is 6-2, a half-game behind first-place New York. And Portis is the NFL's leading rusher, with 944 yards and five straight 100-yard games. And, with all due respect to Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger and Albert Haynesworth, he's also the league's midway MVP.
Few thought that at age 27, in his seventh year in the NFL, the 5-foot-11, 228-pound Portis would experience such a career ascent. He's at the age at which most backs level off. At various times, Portis himself has been uncertain of his long-term future. Heck, he forced a trade from Denver in 2004 because he knew his shelf life could be short. "The window for a running back is only open so long," Portis told me on the day he was introduced as a Redskin. "Right now is my time to get what I'm worth."
Nobody was exactly sure of his worth. He'd played well in Denver, where nearly every running back does. And this decade hasn't been kind to the notion of the bank-breaking superstar tailback. Their typically short career span has forced teams to invest top dollars elsewhere and rely on late-rounders and tandems to supply the ground game. And so when Portis was given a $17-million bonus from Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, it seemed less a wise investment and more an expensive Band-Aid, for which the impulsive Snyder is notorious.
But Portis has earned his money. Only LaDainian Tomlinson has rushed for more yards since Portis entered the league in 2002. But that doesn't mean it has been easy. He has suffered an array of injuries the past two years, showing the kind of wear and tear that often derails a back's career and lends credence to those GMs who refuse to invest major money in them. Portis' diligence in rehabbing was questioned, as was his commitment to being a team leader, seeing as how he spent offseasons training in Miami with his boys from The U.
Portis' contract was redone this past offseason, with financial incentives to be present at the Redskins' offseason workout program. Once he was there, two veterans, receiver James Thrash and linebacker London Fletcher, implored the ever-social Portis to trade some of his partying for harder work at the team complex. "I just respect those guys so much," says Portis. "It was more taking life seriously. Training with those guys, they're the type of guys who I actually look up to."
Another reason Portis has staved off decline is that he has been used differently than ever before. He's carrying the ball more than any other year (23 attempts per game in 2008, compared to his career average of 20) but is being spelled more often in the first three quarters so that he's fresh in the fourth. Twenty-eight percent of his carries this season have been in the final quarter, as opposed to 20 percent during his previous six years. "That's why you get the big bucks," Portis says.
He's had a lingering ankle injury all year. And against the Lions, he got into a shouting match with head coach Jim Zorn after Portis missed a few plays with an equipment issue and reinserted himself into the game without telling anyone. But it's no surprise that when asked to name the moments of which he's most proud, Portis doesn't cite his five straight 100-yard games, or his eight carries of 20-plus yards (he had three last season) but instead three fourth-quarter drives. On the first, against the Saints on Sept. 14, Portis had three straight carries to put the game away. On the second, against the Cowboys on Sept. 28, he had 33 yards rushing on a 12-play, 6-minute, 54-second drive that led to a game-clinching field goal. And on the third, against the Eagles on Oct. 5, his five carries on a 13-play, 7-minute, 18-second drive helped secure another win.
"I'm proud that we stay on the field," Portis says. "In previous years, we hurt ourselves in those situations. Now we stay on the field for seven, eight minutes."
Even if a few of them are spent on one knee.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com