Two years ago, Joe Salave'a was out of football, considering retirement and pondering what he was going to do with the rest of his life, but this afternoon he will again start at tackle for the top-ranked defense in the NFL.
At right end a few feet down the line from Salave'a will be Demetric Evans, who was never drafted, discarded by the Dallas Cowboys and spent this spring fighting for his football future in NFL Europe. Or, in certain situations, Ron Warner, a nomad who was cut by five NFL teams, played a season in the Canadian Football League and never started a game prior to this year.
Washington's Lemar Marshall, top, was cut by three NFL teams. He got his first start filling in for LaVar Arrington and has been a defensive fixture since.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
Behind those linemen will be a linebacker corps that features middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, who was never drafted and spent the past three seasons primarily on special teams. Next to Pierce will be weak-side linebacker Lemar Marshall, another player passed over in the draft who was cut by three NFL teams but has thrived in the last seven games filling in for injured three-time Pro Bowl selection LaVar Arrington.
In the secondary, strong safety Ryan Clark also shares the distinction of never having been drafted. In New York last season, the Giants deemed him too small for the NFL, yet he has earned rave reviews in the last few games after replacing injured starter Matt Bowen.
For all of the millions owner Daniel Snyder has spent recruiting free agents, the Washington Redskins this season are being held together by a group of journeymen defensive players. The Redskins have the highest payroll in league history due largely to the heft of contracts of offensive players, including quarterback Mark Brunell, running back Clinton Portis, tackle Chris Samuels and wide receiver Laveranues Coles. But the offense is near the bottom of the NFL while the defense, playing without injured stars including Arrington and linebacker Mike Barrow, is rated first overall midway through the season.
Five of the Redskins' 11 defensive starters against the Cincinnati Bengals at FedEx Field today either were not drafted or were cut at least once; 13 of the 21 defensive players who played in last Sunday's victory over Detroit had those same modest credentials. If not for the unforeseen contributions from these football vagabonds, the Redskins (3-5) might be heading toward a truly horrible season.
"Guys who have been in these types of situations understand how quickly you can be out on the street," said reserve defensive tackle Brandon Noble, a veteran of NFL Europe who never was drafted and overcame a career-threatening knee injury to return this season. "You realize how nice it is to be here, but at the same time you get motivation from it because everybody has always said that you can't do it and you have a chip on your shoulder every week to go out and prove you can do it."
Rising to the Occasion
Finding unheralded players has long been a secret of Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs's success. But during his first stint in Washington those stories often emerged from his offense, where late-round picks and relative unknowns often blossomed into stars, especially at quarterback and along the offensive line. Gibbs spoke repeatedly before the season about the importance of cultivating low-level free agents.
"Sometimes it's the shockers that I get the biggest kick out of," Gibbs said. "It's the guys you don't expect. It's happened over and over and over again in football; it happens every year and what we're looking for around here, what we're trying to do -- which I keep harping on -- is we want a core group of guys and sometimes it's going to be an Antonio Pierce and guys like that who you are building around, and that's the temperament you want."
Although the Redskins have yet to face the high-powered Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers or Minnesota Vikings -- all second-half opponents -- the no-name defense has become the hallmark of the team, keeping them in games week after week. While the Redskins' offense has struggled, the defense has conceded just 10 touchdowns, held opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards six times and limited teams to fewer than 300 total yards six times.
Undoubtedly, the play of cornerbacks Fred Smoot and Shawn Springs, who were both high draft picks, has lifted the entire defense. Defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, who signed a $31 million free agent contract in the offseason, is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season, and free agent linebacker Marcus Washington, whose $24 million deal included a $7 million signing bonus, is shining as well. But the rest of the unit is upheld by castoffs and rookie safety Sean Taylor, the fifth overall pick last April.
Assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams, who spent the previous three years as head coach in Buffalo, is being heralded for convincing a cast of unknowns to buy into his aggressive style of play and succeeding despite a spate of injuries and departures. The Redskins purged a host of key veterans from last year's defense. Defensive end Bruce Smith retired, and starting linebackers Jessie Armstead, the team leader in sacks, and Jeremiah Trotter, the team leader in tackles, were cut, as was starting safety Ifeanyi Ohalete, starting defensive lineman Regan Upshaw and long-serving linebacker Kevin Mitchell.
Williams wanted younger and faster players, gambling on unproven talent, and his staff spent the offseason workouts, minicamps and training camps sifting through the remnants of the roster. Most players were a mystery even to these longtime coaches because there just was not much NFL game film showing the players doing things other than covering kicks and punts. "Honestly, I had no idea who most of these guys were," said defensive coordinator Greg Blache, who was hired shortly after Gibbs returned in January. "But I let them define who they were, and so far the definition of themselves has been pretty good. One thing I just tried to assure them of was they would be judged on what they did each day, and if they did what we asked them to do and if they work to improve themselves, then we'll find a place for them. It's a credit to them; when we've lost a guy, other guys have risen to the occasion."
Arrington has missed the last five games with a knee injury and likely will miss at least two more weeks, while Barrow, who was signed to anchor the defense at middle linebacker, has yet to play because of his knee injury. Bowen was lost for the season with a knee injury in the fifth game, and his replacement, Andre Lott, suffered a season-ending chest injury two games later, with Clark taking over. Defensive end Phillip Daniels, signed to an $11 million deal in the offseason, has completed only two games because of groin problems and is out indefinitely again, leading to the rotation of Warner and Evans.