As anyone in the glamorous world of used cars will tell you, age is irrelevant. The trusted used car salesman cares as much about the model year as he does buying a necktie made in the last 25 years or a properly fitting toupee. It’s the odometer that tells the truth, inescapable numbers in black and white.
Only a couple months past his 28th birthday, Clinton Portis’s odometer won’t roll over anymore. The truth has caught up with this road warrior.
In a decade where having a garage full of running backs has become the norm, Clinton Portis looks like a clumsy World War I tank. He has started every game of his career since Week Five of his rookie season (missed three games in 2003 and eight in 2006) and never had to split carries. In a full season, Ladell Betts has had the most carries backing up Portis with only 93 carries in 2007 (a year where Portis had 325).
While most players enter the NFL at 22 or 23 years old, Portis was an extremely young 21—his first regular season game was a week after his 21st birthday. For Portis, the running back maxim that life ends at 30 doesn’t apply. Since he started out two years younger, no one should be surprised he has lost a significant step at age 28.
This year, Portis’ lack of production is obscured by his numbers. He is still averaging four yards a carry for the year (124 carries for 494 yards).
But, Portis had one long 78-yard run against the Kansas City Chiefs on a day when he ran 15 times for 109 yards. That means his other 14 carries gained just 31 yards (an average of 2.2 yards per carry). Portis has only averaged over four yards a carry in one other game against the St. Louis Rams, who have one of the worst defenses in the NFL.
When you take that one 78-yard run out of his season totals, he is only averaging 3.38 yards per carry. That’s a whole yard per carry drop-off from last year.
The Offensive Line
For the first six weeks of the 2009 season, there were rumblings about Portis losing a step. He largely got off scot-free from major blame because the offensive line had been so bad and allowed so many sacks (30 to date).
The corollary was that bad pass blocking must equate to bad run blocking. The blame didn’t land on Portis; it fell at the feet of the offensive line.
The maligned Redskins offensive line has struggled in two areas this year: communication on blitz pickup and speed rushers. Their linemen (See: Mike Williams) are incredibly slow and have struggled to pickup a single blitz. But Ladell Betts has shown he is running behind some punishing run blockers who can get into the second level.
The most important aspect of the Redskins' last six quarters is that the success of Ladell Betts (with a worse offensive line) is a direct indictment of Clinton Portis. Without Chris Samuels and Randy Thomas, Betts has gained 184 yards (4.5 yards per carry) since replacing Portis.
The future for running backs past their prime is not good, given roughly the same chance for a comeback as pagers. But anyone who tries to predict what will happen in the uncapped 2010 NFL season comes off looking like the ridiculous and bespectacled Professor Trelawney from the Harry Potter series.
So, the quandary for the Redskins remains that Portis is guaranteed $6.43 million of his $7.195 million base salary in 2010 (source: profootballtalk.com). He will certainly not have much trade value around the league, so the Redskins will either cut him or try to get one more year out of him.
In studying the careers of other great running backs, Clinton Portis may bounce around for another year after that, but it’s not out of the question that in two years he will be out of the National Football League.