- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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When Clinton Portis joined Joe Gibbs as his cornerstone acquisition of 2004, the running back realized he was no longer at the University of Miami.
Portis came into the NFL with that Hurricanes confidence. He told reporters in Denver at the start of his first training camp that he was going to be the best back in football. He responded with consecutive 1,500-yard seasons, proving a point. He was a feature back coming from a great program.
But the Redskins' situation was different from Denver's. Gibbs is a Hall of Fame coach, but the pieces didn't fit as well. Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner were slower, possession receivers. Gibbs' offensive linemen weren't like those Portis had in Denver. The Redskins' blockers were bigger but a little slower than the quick, more athletic Broncos' linemen. Suddenly, Portis felt as though he was on a treadmill -- running more but not really going anywhere.
Portis combined for nearly 3,100 rushing yards and averaged 5.5 yards a carry in two seasons with Denver. As a Redskin last season, he had 343 carries. His yardage total dropped to 1,315 and his rushing average fell to 3.8. The onetime slasher was a pounder, and defenses were pounding him.
"Teams stuffed the box on us," left tackle Chris Samuels said. "We really couldn't throw the ball downfield."
After a disappointing 6-10 mark in 2004, Gibbs thought long and hard about himself. He admitted other first-year coaches had done a better job than he had, not unlike in his first Redskins season -- in 1981 -- when he lost his first five games. As Gibbs made his return from the auto racing circuit, the game hadn't passed him by but he knew he needed to make a few adjustments in the scheme, and he needed a different approach.
Fortunately for Portis, Gibbs reached out to a former University of Miami friend. He traded Coles to the Jets for Santana Moss. Moss was a first-rounder in 2001. Portis went in the second round in 2002. But things were quite different in D.C. Strangely, Moss and Portis found they weren't surrounded by as much talent in the NFL, so they were expected to make big plays all the time. If they didn't, they might be labeled disappointments.
"The thing was, at Miami, we had a gang of receivers and we had a gang of running backs," Moss said. "Clinton would get in in the second quarter sometimes and he'd get 100 yards. He's one of those guys who didn't need anything more than 10 carries to get 100 yards."
Portis was the star Hurricanes back sandwiched between Edgerrin James and Willis McGahee. Najeh Davenport was also in his backfield. Moss was in the same draft class as Colts first-rounder Reggie Wayne on a Miami team that had Jeremy Shockey at tight end and was grooming Andre Johnson at wide receiver. The Hurricanes were loaded.
The Redskins? They were struggling.
Moss changed that. His acquisition, along with the signing of former Patriots receiver David Patten, gave Gibbs a different approach to the offense. Moss and Patten were smaller and quicker. They had more big-play ability when they caught the ball. The idea of better run-after-the-catch numbers translated into better runs for Portis.
"Clinton means everything," Moss said. "As a receiver, you have a guy like Clinton and the way he runs. He means a lot to me. When you sit back and play a Cover 2 defense and play the zone, and you have a guy like Clinton jumping through the holes, you have to bring the safeties up sooner or later. That leaves me as a receiver on an island one-on-one. That's what a receiver prays for -- one-on-one coverage."
Moss had his best season under this system. He caught 84 passes for 1,483 yards and nine touchdowns. In New York, he was considered brittle. He always seemed to have a nick. After the trade to the Redskins, Moss trained harder and has been incredibly durable. Thanks to his reunion with Portis, he found ways to adjust when defenses started double-teaming him.
Double-teaming Moss means more running room for Portis. Defenses had headaches all season trying to figure out where to put their emphasis.
"I think Santana has helped us tremendously," Samuels said. "He's made some awesome plays for us. Coach Gibbs came up with new protections during the offseason that help us out with the blitz. When coach Gibbs got back, he had to feel his way out and feel out what the league was doing. The new protections helped us on third downs, but the biggest thing is his smashmouth football."
The Redskins' offense is physical. The line is big and powerful. Gibbs often uses two tight ends to provide more bodies to bang defenses. Often, Moss might be the only receiver going into routes. With Portis' skills working off of Moss', the balance works.
The association with Gibbs has made Portis a different, more physical and complete back.
"Clinton is extremely physical," Gibbs said. "I go back to this because the very first time we felt we had the chance to trade for Clinton, we went and got the films, and if you ask him the plays he likes the best, he'll tell you it's the inside running. Even though he's very good on the edge and he's got great speed, he is a physical inside runner. From that standpoint, I'm not surprised that he runs so well inside. Even with the crease plays in Denver, if you watched him, he'd start outside for most of them and slam it back inside. He's a good inside runner, and I think that comes along with being tough."
His toughness was on display against the Eagles on Sunday. In the third quarter, his entire body was twisted backward in a painful tackle that made it look as though he had suffered a serious injury. Portis was back on the field within a couple of plays and leveled a hard block on a blitzing linebacker.
"I think he's grown up so much," Moss said. "You see the physical part of him now. He was a slasher in college. Now, he showed he can bang with the biggest guy."
The wind was knocked out of Portis. His shoulders were burning. His body was aching. But he was running well against the Eagles. He was getting his inside runs, and they were opening up the outside passes to Moss.
"For me, the punishment I take and the times when guys are pushing me down or doing something nasty under the pile, I just try to return the favor," Portis said. "They have the opportunity to hit me when I have the ball in my hand, and I figure I have the opportunity to hit you. I try to do them the same way they do me."
Such physical play wasn't needed from Portis at Miami.
"He didn't have to do that in college," Moss said. "We had big linemen and tight ends who stayed into the block."
With the Redskins, Moss and Portis are having a blast together. It shows Gibbs knew exactly what he was doing when he traded for them.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The reunion of Miami teammates Clinton Portis and Santana Moss is a key reason the Redskins are in the playoffs.