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For Portis, New Role Is 'Big Man Football'


Just in case you were wondering, Clinton Portis is still a free spirit.

Sure, Portis may not dress up in goofy costumes or embody characters such as "Southeast Jerome" or "Sheriff Gonna Getcha" anymore.

But--surprise, surprise--Portis was spotted in the audience of the Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday, May 18 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Portis...At the Country Music Awards?

"It was actually a great event," Portis said. "Why not broaden my horizons?"

For Portis, it was an evening away from Redskins Park, where he has been a regular attendee of the team's off-season strength and conditioning program.

He told TV's Larry Michael recently that team officials have asked him to be more of a leader this offseason.

Even with Joe Gibbs as head coach and a dominant figure in the Redskins' landscape the last few years, Portis has been a face of the franchise since he arrived in Washington via trade with the Denver Broncos in 2004.

He has rushed for 4,616 yards and 34 touchdowns in his four seasons with the club, placing him fourth-best in franchise history.

The only question? Which of Portis's many faces would show up on a given day.

Now it appears team officials want Portis's own face to be front and center.

"They spoke to me about being a front man for the organization, after all of the changes on the coaching staff," he said. "They wanted me to be around Redskins Park [in the offseason] and try to encourage players to buy into the system."

It's an interesting turn for the free-spirited Portis, who turns 27 on Sept. 1.

It's safe to say that he would rather be relaxing at South Beach than working out in Ashburn, Va.

Portis has seen the benefits as he gets to know new head coach Jim Zorn and appreciate how younger teammates look up to him, even with his occasional silliness.

"For me to give up the offseason, I really didn't want to do it," he admitted. "But the more I've been here, the more I appreciate [team officials] pulling me aside."

Said Zorn: "Clinton likes to be cool. He's a cool guy. He's just being himself. The thing I appreciate about him is that he is here. He's not just participating. He's showing the younger guys what to do.

"I pointed him out in a team meeting. When you watch him play, he's the example of a guy who really finishes plays."

Portis senses a "looser vibe" around Redskins Park with Zorn in charge.

That's not a criticism at Gibbs. It's an acknowledgement that Zorn and Gibbs are two entirely different head coaches.

"So many people did not want to fail Coach Gibbs or let him down," Portis said. "They knew how bad Coach Gibbs wanted to win, but it made some people uptight. Everybody wanted it so bad, it was like, 'We've got to do it. We've got to do it.'

"You wanted to give it your all, especially knowing what he was going through with his grandchild's illness and also how much time he put into [the job]. But it was kind of a conflict. You wanted to go out and lay it on the line, but all of the hours you'd spend, you'd get tired after a while.

"Coach Zorn is just like fresh air. It's more laid back and relaxed. You feel like, 'We can go out and [have fun].' It doesn't seem like the pressure is there.

"I think we have a golden opportunity. And I think [Zorn] is going to put people in position to make plays and help this team. It's up to us to just go out and play hard."

Of course, it's easy to say the atmosphere around Redskins Park is more relaxed when it's June. The first regular-season game is three months away.

There is plenty of work to be done between now and then.

Zorn, formerly the quarterbacks coach of the Seattle Seahawks, is bringing the West Coast offense to Washington this offseason.

He expects to maintain elements of the Redskins' ground game while also borrowing the passing game of the Seattle Seahawks' offense the last few years.

What does it mean for Portis?

He could emerge as the Redskins' version of Shaun Alexander, the Seahawks' do-it-all running back. He was the league's MVP in 2005, compiling a career-high 1,880 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns on 370 carries. He has also averaged 29 catches per season since 2001, with a career-high 59 in 2002.

Portis has rushed for 1,500-plus yards in three of his first four seasons in the NFL. Last year, he compiled 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns on 325 carries.

Portis also caught a career-high 47 passes for 389 yards last season. That experience should serve him well as Zorn emphasizes the short passing game in the West Coast offense.

It has been suggested that Portis could approach--or even surpass--the 2,000-yard rushing mark in 2008. Only five players have accomplished that feat in NFL history.

"It's a great goal," Portis said. "A lot of people have put it out there and they think I can accomplish it. For me, it's whatever it's going to take for us to win. If for us to win, it's going to take me running for 2,000 yards, then I look forward to that. If they're going to put it on my back, I'm all for it."

He added: "I go out and I play big man football. That's what I want to do. I want to run wild. I think with the new coaching staff--as much as I love Coach Gibbs--this could be my opportunity to run wild."

Last July, Portis reflected on his legacy--at the age of 25. Coming off an injury plagued 2006 season, he didn't want to take football for granted anymore, but he also felt uncertain of his future in Washington.

Now, there is no uncertainty.

"It has been a maturing process here," he said. "I understand what I need to do and I know how to carry myself to get through a season. Two years ago, getting hurt was probably the best thing for me because it got my appreciation for football back. It made me understand how football could be gone.

"And then, losing Sean [Taylor] at the top of his career--all of a sudden everything you think that's not important becomes a major part of your life. Football is not life or death for me, but while I have an opportunity to play it, I want to be the best at it."

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