Pause Before Blaming Clinton Portis for Feud with Jim Zorn

Shaun AhmadSenior Analyst IDecember 9, 2008

Rarely is there a time where I take the side of a player who chooses to publicly lash out at his coach or manager through the public media. 

I find it to be disrespectful, selfish, and indicative the lack of team character present in that individual.

This is why I have never—and will never—be a Terrell Owens fan, despite his often amazing on-the-field contributions. 

If a player has something to say to the coach about strategy, lack of playing time or any other issues, I firmly believe that it should be done in the confines of the team office.  Don’t write on a blog, do a television interview, or go off on a radio show.

That being said, I am giving Clinton Portis a free pass. 

For those who have not yet heard, Portis blasted head coach Jim Zorn on his weekly radio interview slot with John Thompson on WTEM Radio.  With the team in the middle of a playoff hunt, this will quite possibly be the one time I defend a star player losing his composure at such a critical juncture. 

Why?  Because Jim Zorn stuck it to Portis on national television and then in his press conference, offering phrases like “not prepared” to describe the most important player on the Washington Redskins, and certainly a top-five candidate for league MVP.

Clinton Portis has gone through the season fighting injury after injury.  Yet he has managed to suit up and play at an MVP level week in and week out.  His on-the-field performance defines the term "team player." 

Unlike many running backs in the league, Portis sacrifices his body and takes on defensive linemen or linebackers who are mammoth in size compared to him.  He makes the blocks in pass protection that other University of Miami showboating running backs—Edgerrin James, Willis McGahee, etc.—have failed to make their entire careers.  The Washington area fans know what Portis contributes, as do his teammates. 

He is the leader of the offense—and quite frankly, the most important asset on a team that was 6-2 through the first eight games of the season.  For Jim Zorn to essentially bench Portis after the first half in a nationally-televised game in favor of Ladell Betts—who has produced close to nothing all season—was a slap in the face. 

To go on and cite that Portis was not as prepared as Betts due to missed practices was just salt in the wound. 

Portis responded with fury by saying, “Outside of Jim Zorn and the coaches on that team and maybe the quarterbacks, I guarantee you I know our system better than anybody else.  I guarantee you when we go into blitz pickup, I don't miss my man.”  Few of those familiar with the Redskins can argue that notion.  Game tape is the evidence. 

Portis went on to suggest that he is being made the scapegoat for the offensive line and Jason Campbell’s inability to get rid of the ball and avoid sacks, “Jason on his (butt) all game long, you try to stay in and help, then it's 'Aw, you should have gone out...'  If he's over there and can't breathe and unconscious where he done got the wind knocked out of him from being sacked, then it's 'Aw you got to help out, you've got to chip.'  So I don't think they know what they want me to do.”

When prompted with the question as to whether opponents ha d figured out Zorn’s offense, Portis responded, “We got a genius for a head coach, I don't know, so I'm sure he's on top of things.  He's got everything figured out. All I can do is when he calls the plays is to try and execute to the best of my ability.”

Perhaps using sarcasm to describe Zorn’s intelligence level was a bit much, but I cannot argue with anything else he said in the interview.  The fact of the matter is the Redskins have had success when they have consistently given the ball to Clinton Portis. 

The passing game has had success when Portis has done his part to make blocks in protection schemes, and when Campbell has found receivers (a rarity as of late).  It is not Portis’ job to make the passing game work.  He has done his part—and no one can argue that. 

Jim Zorn on the other hand, has not yet earned his stripes to be able to characterize players who have a career resume of playing at a high level and leaving it out on the field.  Clinton Portis has a history of being a team player who is respected by everyone in the locker room.  Jim Zorn does not. 

Let’s look at the facts. 

Jim Zorn took over for Joe Gibbs and has had great success, despite the recent string of losses.  Going 7-6 in the brutal NFC East is an accomplishment.  However, the running scheme is the same as it was under Gibbs.  Zorn decided to keep it, since it worked in previous seasons. 

The defensive strategy is the same under Greg Blache, as it has been for the past couple of seasons.  Those are the two most powerful assets on the Redskins—the running game and the defense. 

The only areas of weakness are the areas where Zorn has meddled in—passing offense and special teams. 

Washington ranks 25th in the NFL in passing touchdowns.  The Eagles, Cowboys, and Giants all rank in the top ten.  The Redskins ranked 23rd in sacks allowed.  The Giants, Eagles and Cowboys rank sixth, eighth, and 12th respectively.  To summarize, the Redskins don’t score in the air, and give up a lot of yardage in sacks.

The special teams?  Currently, the yards per punt average is 30th in the league.  They rank 26th in percentage of punts downed inside the 20-yard line, and dead last in percentage of field goals made—by a long shot.  Antawn Randle-El, who Zorn has stubbornly stuck with (much like Plackemeier and Suisham in the kicking game) has a dismal punt-return average of 6.3 yards. 

Zorn has been inflexible to a fault in the two areas where he has had the most influence.  The result is that those are the two areas which hamper the Redskins the most week in and week out.

Look, I’m no advocate for players lashing out at coaches or teammates.  I’m the last person who would be in favor of that.  However, for Zorn to question Portis’ preparedness and give him one carry in the second half of the Ravens game was a clear sign that there is a rift between the two.

Zorn responded to the radio interview with, "He's a big part of our offense, and he's sitting on the bench.  He's going to feel like he's benched. I don't blame him for that...He's an every-down back, that's the way he sees himself and that's the way we see him. He needs to be on the field. I felt the same way when I played."

While Zorn has said the right things, his actions have spoken louder than his words can now ever come close to covering up. 

Before we make Portis the scapegoat and label him with terms that he does not deserve, let’s make sure we look at who started the public feud.  It didn’t start on Tuesday’s John Thompson radio show.  It started Sunday night in Baltimore. 

This one is on Zorn. 


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