Champ Bailey, Clinton Portis and their blockbuster trade
Washington and Denver swapped two superstars in their prime on March 4, 2004
Clinton Portis is one of only five players in NFL history to rush for five touchdowns in a game. The then-Denver Broncos running back ran for 218 yards and five scores against the Kansas City Chiefs on Dec. 7, 2003. Portis remembers that game, but not for the reason one might think.
“How could I forget that game? It was the game that got me traded,” said Portis, who was sent to Washington three months later for cornerback Champ Bailey.
Portis’ on-field performance that day might have been what made Washington want to trade for him, but it isn’t what made Denver want to get rid of him.
Adam Schefter, then a reporter for The Denver Post, sat in head coach Mike Shanahan’s office the day after the game when Shanahan floated the idea of trading Portis. Not only was Portis putting together an MVP-caliber sophomore season, he was coming off the best performance of his young career. Yet Shanahan was considering trading him.
Schefter, who is now with ESPN, reacted with far less shock than the notion would have generated in the rest of the football world because of what had happened the day before.
Portis drove to the game in a black Mercedes G-Wagon, one of two Mercedes he purchased that week. He parked in the players’ lot at Denver’s Mile High Stadium and entered, as he had for every home game, carrying a bag. But the bag was slightly heavier. He sneaked in an object he had never brought to a game before and would never bring again: a golden championship belt.
“I was looking forward to matching up with Priest [Holmes],” Portis said of the Kansas City Chiefs running back, whom he admired. “Back then, Priest was the guy.”
Holmes had been named NFL Offensive Player of the Year the previous season, and he was headed to his third straight first-team All-Pro selection. But Portis believed he was the best back in the league, and he was determined to convince the rest of the world. Portis and the Broncos had lost five of their 12 games before taking on the 11-1 Chiefs.
Holmes and Portis had similar statistical production at halftime. The Chiefs led 21-17, but Portis left the locker room with confidence and the shiny object from his bag concealed in a bundle of towels. Portis stashed his bundle behind the bench. He carried the ball 12 times in the second half, gaining 188 yards and scoring three touchdowns to bring his total to five. Portis’ final run was a 53-yard touchdown that gave the Broncos an insurmountable 45-21 lead. With eight minutes left in the game, Portis was done for the day. He made a statement with his play, but the statement needed an exclamation point. He went to his stash and pulled out the golden belt. The message was clear: Portis was the new champion of NFL running backs.
The belt belonged to Portis’ friend and guest at the game, Georgia rapper Pastor Troy, whose 1999 song “We Ready,” a Master P diss track, became the unofficial fight song for sports teams across the country. Broncos fans and teammates enjoyed Portis’ playful message to the rest of the league. But it didn’t sit well with Shanahan.
“It was around the time when T.O.’s [Terrell Owens’] celebrations were getting attention. And I don’t know how much the Broncos’ leadership liked that,” Schefter said.
Shanahan offered Portis to Washington, and the trade for Bailey was agreed upon before the Pro Bowl in February 2004.
“No one was willing to go on the record, so I couldn’t report it,” said Schefter, who knew a lot of the details. He even knew that Washington added a second-round pick to their offer because the Broncos raised the idea of trading Portis to the Dallas Cowboys.
At the Pro Bowl, Schefter asked Portis about the possibility of him being traded. “He was mad that I would even bring it up,” Schefter said.
“I was there representing the Broncos. Being traded didn’t make sense,” Portis said. Maybe it didn’t make sense to Portis, but it made sense to Washington and Denver. Washington needed a running back to power new head coach Joe Gibbs’ run-heavy offense. And the Broncos needed improved secondary play to get past Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts in the AFC.
With no one on record, Schefter decided rather than writing what he knew, he would write an opinion piece for the Post suggesting the trade.
“I tried to get them to put it on the front page of the sports section, but they wouldn’t listen,” Schefter said.
Despite its location, the article didn’t go unnoticed. Riding on an airport shuttle with Broncos running backs coach Bobby Turner, Schefter asked Turner what he thought about the article. “Where do you come up with this stuff?” Turner said.
The trade became official on March 4, 2004.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Bailey said. “I knew [Washington] didn’t want to re-sign me.”
Bailey’s contract expired after the 2003 season, and Washington had given Bailey permission to seek a trade and put the franchise tag on him.
Denver and Washington swapped two superstars in their prime, an NFL trade that arguably has no parallel.
Fourteen years later, if you ask Portis or Bailey “which team got the better player,” the bravado that made both players great will bubble to the surface. Portis believes it was Washington. Bailey believes it was Denver. Both could be correct.
“They got a second-round pick [which the Broncos used to draft running back Tatum Bell] with me,” Bailey said. “I think that was the icing on the cake. You asked me about Hall of Fame. Are you going to ask him about Hall of Fame, Clinton Portis? Well I’m just asking, what do you think? I’m not making this up. I have enough self-confidence to say, yeah, we got the better end of that.”
Bailey became the fourth-greatest Bronco of all time, according to The 50 Greatest Players in Denver Broncos History by former Denver Post reporter Mike Klis. The 12-time Pro Bowler finished with 56 career interceptions, including 10 in 2006 while not giving up a touchdown all season.
Portis earned honorable mention on the list of great Broncos. He is eighth on the team’s career rushing yards list despite playing in 29 games. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry in his two seasons in Denver.
In seven seasons with Washington, Portis averaged 81 yards per game, which is the best among players who have appeared in more than three games. Portis is second to Hall of Famer John Riggins in career rushing yards for the team. Riggins had the benefit of three more seasons in the burgundy and gold. Portis produced two of the top three statistical seasons for a running back in Washington’s 86-year history.
Portis was a reliable star for a franchise that has been unsteady for decades, while Bailey excelled in one of the most stable organizations in the NFL.