Jason Reid
Jason Reid
Columnist

London Fletcher: A leader for tumultuous times

The Washington Redskins’ best free agent of the Daniel Snyder era would prefer to discuss anything but himself.

“Man, why you doing this to me?” inside linebacker London Fletcher asked the other day during training camp at Redskins Park, capping the question with his signature hearty laugh and big smile. “It’s too hot for this.”

One of Washington’s greatest leaders since its Super Bowl days, Fletcher isn’t interested in assessing his impact during the most tumultuous four-year stretch in franchise history. The rock of the Redskins’ locker room doesn’t seek public pats on the back and “atta-boys,” so he would rather change the subject.

Still, what Fletcher has done for the Redskins is worth noting.

“No matter what we’ve been through, no matter what problems we’ve faced on or off the field, that guy has kept everybody calm and together,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “Fletch, he quiets the storm. Really, with some of the things that have happened, I don’t even want to think about how stuff could have been different if Fletch wasn’t around.”

The Redskins have signed players with higher profiles than Fletcher’s. Snyder has spent much more money on free agents with better résumés. But never has he spent as wisely as he did when acquiring Fletcher, whose combination of production and leadership has been unmatched among players lured to Washington.

Since Fletcher joined the Redskins before the 2007 season, he has been almost as busy helping to put out fires as he has been making plays. His performance has prompted praise from whomever occupied the head coach’s chair and every defensive coordinator. Although the names of those in charge have changed frequently, management’s positive view of Fletcher remains constant.

He came, in large part, in hopes of resuming his successful partnership with onetime Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, whose guidance helped Fletcher grow as a player when they were together in Buffalo. Fletcher had only one season here with Williams, once considered Washington’s head-coach-in-waiting, but Fletcher also developed strong bonds with those who followed Williams.

After Sean Taylor was slain during the 2007 season, Fletcher shouldered a lot privately and publicly. Fletcher also was one of the veterans who demanded the Redskins maintain focus on their work, and Washington earned its third playoff appearance in Snyder’s 12 seasons as owner.

Players listened to Fletcher as the team experienced a 2-6 second-half slide in 2008, keeping most of their frustration within the locker room. A bad situation likely would have been worse, players say, without Fletcher’s firm guidance.

Then there was the chaos of the entire 2009 season. Fletcher encouraged everyone to maintain as much professionalism as possible.

Fletcher was tested again in 2010 as the team struggled to overcome the Donovan McNabb and Albert Haynesworth distractions. Again, Fletcher stressed team unity, and his teammates followed.

“I’m very humbled they feel that way about me,” Fletcher said. “It’s not something I take for granted.”

It was Fletcher who most helped coordinator Jim Haslett during his difficult first season installing a new defense.

Coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to scrap the team’s long-standing 4-3 scheme for an aggressive 3-4 style resulted in the Redskins’ worst defensive performance in 56 years. Fletcher provided important in-game tutoring for teammates experiencing growing pains, and his ability to quickly grasp Haslett’s philosophy is among the reasons, “I love the guy,” Haslett said.

Shanahan customarily is less effusive than Haslett. He has been known to instruct assistants to push players while withholding praise, believing that makes them try harder. Even Shanahan, though, has made his feelings known about Fletcher, whom he considers possibly the greatest leader on any team under him.

Setting an example was not something Fletcher set out to do, he said. He definitely doesn’t crave the spotlight. He’s not working from a script.

Throughout his first 13 seasons in the NFL, Fletcher just continued the approach he has had as long as he could remember, “and it’s really just . . . a sense of responsibility to do the right things. It’s about being accountable.

“I always want to try to make sure I’m doing everything I’m supposed to do. You have a lot of different types of leaders. I try to also be a vocal leader as well, because there are situations where you have to be vocal. At the same time, you have to back it up [with your play]. If you don’t, guys won’t respect what you’re saying.”

No worries there.

Selected to his second consecutive Pro Bowl last season, Fletcher, 36, continues to rank among the league leaders in tackles. Remarkably, the next game Fletcher misses will be his first.

With 208 consecutive games played, Fletcher is tied with Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning and Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber for the NFL’s longest current streak. Fletcher’s 167 straight starts rank behind only Manning (208) and Barber (183).

At a time when most players are well into their retirement, Fletcher remains one of the game’s best linebackers. He has a $4.9 million base salary and a cap number of $7.1 million in the final season of a $25 million contract, and his intention is to continue playing after this season.

Eventually, Fletcher won’t fit with Washington’s ongoing youth movement under Shanahan. There soon will come a time when Fletcher and the Redskins will move on separately. For now, though, Snyder’s team still has his best free agent.

 
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