While winning five consecutive games and reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1999, the Washington Redskins have apparently learned to play smash-mouth football on the field and off.
Last Sunday in Philadelphia, where the welcome mat is never out for visiting teams, running back Clinton Portis said his mother was doused with a beer and responded by punching the offending fan in the face.
"She's bad, she's tough," Portis said Thursday. "She's a Redskinette."
While his mother watched the final minutes of a 31-20 Washington victory from the sideline, Portis scored the decisive touchdown on a 22-yard run with his power-ballet style of punishing muscle and whirling grace. By afternoon's end, he had set a team rushing record with 1,516 yards for the season.
When the Redskins (10-6) play at Tampa Bay (11-5) in Saturday's playoff opener, they will probably not have the same identity crisis that figured in a 36-35 loss to the Buccaneers in mid-November. A recent makeover has recast Washington in the Joe Gibbs mold -- bullying defense, efficient passing and brawny running.
The NFL has not passed Gibbs by, as many thought a season ago when he returned to coach the Redskins after an absence of 11 seasons and posted a mere six victories. His three Super Bowl titles seemed dusty and distant. If Gibbs appeared trapped in the leather-helmeted glory days of the 1980s and early 1990s, well, he might have been. But a season later, his old-school instincts to run the ball seem timeless, not stubborn and out of touch.
"That's the winning formula of football," Portis said. "You stuff it down their throat, or they stuff it down yours."
After a 16-13 loss to lowly Oakland on Nov. 20 dropped the Redskins to 5-5, Washington's offensive linemen began exhorting the coaches to run the ball more, to summon the bludgeoning style of their porcine predecessors, the Hogs. If the Redskins were going to miss the playoffs, they would go down swinging, like Portis's mother.
"We kind of got away from the run," said Ray Brown 43, the elder statesmen on Washington's offensive line. "We thought we could control the line of scrimmage. Give us a chance to establish ourselves on the ground. If they could stop the run, they should win the game. But we thought we matched up well."
A week later, the Redskins lost again, 23-17 to San Diego. The playoffs seemed beyond reach. But Washington then reeled off five victories in a row as Portis reached 1,500 yards rushing for the third time in his four NFL seasons with Denver, then Washington. During a 35-20 victory against the Giants on Christmas Eve, he shouted at Gibbs: "You want to win the game?"
"Yeah, I want to win," Gibbs said.
"Then `gut' and `power,'" Portis said, urging his coach to call the up-the-gut running plays.
Gibbs said, "You ask most backs, they'd tell you, `Toss it to me on the outside, it's kind of tough in there."'
This lust for contact is the most impressive thing about Portis, according to Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell, especially when he does not have the ball and is headhunting a blitzing safety or waylaying a cornerback downfield.
"He is so physical without the ball," Don Breaux, Washington's offensive coordinator, said of Portis. "He does things nobody else in the league does."
Once, like Riggins, Portis preferred a tax audit to weight training. As Riggins did, he also changed his mind, adding bulk as armor against injury and fatigue. And he has become a more patient runner.