Banking on the Power of Redemption
There was a telling moment Tuesday in Ashburn when Gregg Williams was asked whether he had worried Andre Carter might choose Denver over Washington during free agency. He could easily have said that not acquiring a pass-rusher of Carter's ilk might hurt the defense. But Williams couldn't let his prideful self go there.
"Had he made a choice to go somewhere else, good riddance," he said, sneering. "That's fine."
What a nurturing way to let players know where they stand, no?
Andre Carter, the guy Bill Walsh once believed could be the next Charles Haley, is now another system convert, out for redemption. On another steam bath of an August day, Carter is essentially the newest member of Williams's Tough-Love Club for former imperfect fits.
The biggest misconception about a no-name defense is that no one craves an identity beyond the group. That's a lie. Every player secretly wants to star again, become the impact player he was in college or earlier in his NFL career. But Williams's great trick is making them believe the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few -- even the one.
Since Joe Gibbs gave him the defense two years ago, Williams has become remarkably good at cobbling together waived players, late-round picks and disrespected backups with attitudes. He convinces them someone must pay for letting them get away. It's why he actually delighted in LaVar Arrington's trials last season. If Arrington was going to play for his defense, Williams's feeling was the former Pro Bowler had to know what it was like to be hungry again, to understand nothing is your birthright in this league. The lone wolves can't find NFL redemption, Williams believes. But the pack can.
Carter is part of the pack now. He's not the player Walsh moved up in the draft to pluck from Cal in 2001, the player the 49ers patriarch believed could become a feared pass-rusher like Haley or Fred Dean. He went from 25 1/2 sacks his first three years to 6 1/2 his final two seasons in San Francisco. Between a back injury that required surgery in 2004 and the fear that he was a 'tweener -- too small for the defensive line and not a good enough pass-defender to effectively play linebacker -- he left the Bay Area searching for his proper role in the NFL.
"I'm very fortunate that a team, despite the ups and downs I've been through, saw the talent I had and believed in me," Carter said Tuesday as he toweled off the sweat at training camp. "I'll just do what they ask me to do."
Beautiful, Williams must be thinking. He's already bought in. The truth is, Carter subjugated his ego for the team long before Washington signed him for $30 million over six years in the offseason. He had no choice.
Carter's father is former NFL defensive lineman Rubin Carter, a member of Denver's Orange Crush. Rubin actually coached the defensive linemen here in 1999 and 2000 and introduced an impressionable Andre to Bruce Smith, Dana Stubblefield and Marco Coleman -- established pros who gave him a glimpse of the NFL life. Rubin also introduced Andre to a curfew.
"It was 10 p.m., which meant he was in by 9:45 p.m. most nights," said Rubin by telephone yesterday. "Trust me, Andre didn't have any knucklehead years. I wouldn't let him."
Rubin is now the coach at Florida A&M. He once pushed 500 pounds on the bench and was regarded as one of the strongest men in the NFL. His son went to the weight room with him on occasion, and Andre is now 6 feet 4 and 265 pounds of sculpted, critical mass. The guy's physique reeks of Gold's Gym. Bubba Tyer, the team's director of sports medicine, said most NFL players at the defensive end position average between 14 and 20 percent body fat. Andre has 4 percent body fat. Next to Andre's bulging biceps and pectorals, stubby Clinton Portis looks like a gnat. Pity the player who tests him.
"He's got that Incredible Hulk thing going," Rubin said. "On one hand, he's mild-mannered. But when he gets irritated, look out. He's like me in that way."
What Rubin did not want: his kid growing up to be merely an alpha-male, testosterone-fueled jock. So he and Andre's mother encouraged their son to broaden his interests. Andre earned a black belt in taekwondo when he was about 11. He also learned to play the piano, a hobby he practices on his baby grand piano. He's proficient in classical and jazz.
Whether either of those traits will help Andre Carter adjust to a frothing-mouth defense -- and help catapult him further down the NFL comeback trail -- is unclear. You just don't picture Sean Taylor and Cornelius Griffin sitting on opposite ends of a baby grand, taking turns on "Chopsticks." Around this red-meat crew, it's sometimes best to shelve the sensitive side.
According to Rubin, Andre can do that, too. His father said when Andre was 5, the family took him to the movie theater to see "Rambo."
"Now, Rambo is shooting everybody, blowin' up the town and there's this touching, emotional moment where he starts crying," Rubin remembered. "I don't know what it was, but Andre just bursts out laughing while all these people around us are crying. We just thought that was the funniest thing."
Andre Carter, the boy who laughed when Rambo cried. Maybe he was always cut out to play for Gregg Williams.