By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
At the bye week, after the Redskins' 36-22 loss at Indianapolis on Oct. 22, defensive end Andre Carter reached a critical conclusion: He told himself he would enjoy being in Washington. He would have fun playing football and not obsess over his statistics and how his performance was being perceived. He had made a similar deal with himself only weeks earlier, but had been unable to keep it.
For nearly the first two months of the season, Carter had been under siege from both internal and external forces. Internally, he did not believe he was playing as well as he could. Each Monday film session with defensive line coach Greg Blache was the same: Carter would watch himself play and flinch with a combination of disappointment and anger. On pass plays, he saw himself thinking too much before making a move, allowing offensive linemen crucial time in which to take him out of the play. He wasn't using his instinct. He was letting players he did not fear get the better of him. He would tell himself he was a better player than he showed on Sundays.
Externally, the adjunct to his own worries about his play came in the form of hard criticism, the connection between his statistics and the six-year, $30 million free agent contract he signed with the Redskins in March. He knew what the numbers said. Through the first seven games he had two sacks. Teammates, from Renaldo Wynn to Phillip Daniels, told Carter not to read newspapers or the Internet, to avoid the constant commentary that was affecting his mood. Safety Troy Vincent, a new arrival, advised him not to allow the money to alter how he viewed himself as a professional.
"If the team doesn't fare well, you are the target and the topic of discussion because you went in there with the big contract, because if you're going to pay me the amount of money we're talking about, there's a level of expectation from the owner, the coaches, the players, media and fans," Vincent said. "It starts with self-confidence, and not living on the external, and you cannot believe what you read. Don't read your own clippings. Don't believe the hype, the good or the bad. It's all about upbringing, about not letting the money define who you are. That's the worst that can happen."
Alternately during this season, living up to the money had weighed on Carter, and today he refers to his contract not as a contract but as that "big number I have on me."
But somewhere in the rubble of Sunday's 24-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, Carter felt a weight lift. The Redskins lost, but Carter won back something he believed he had lost. He promised himself weeks ago he'd stop feeling sorry for himself and on Sunday received something in return. He'd played his best game as a Redskin, sacking Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick and making 11 tackles.
"Life is too short to always focus on the negative," Carter said, adding that back surgery in 2004 profoundly affected him. "When you go through two years wondering about your purpose in life, it changes you."
When he wasn't disruptive in the backfield Sunday, he forced two key penalties on Wayne Gandy, the left tackle, one a holding call that negated a 17-yard run by Vick. The result of a football game is not always the best barometer and finally, three-quarters through his first year as a Redskin, he'd found himself. It was the kind of dominant day a player needs.
"I don't think it was the level of expectation of what the fans or anybody else wanted," Carter said. "I think it was me putting pressure on myself. Every time I looked at film, I said, 'I know I can play better.' I don't know what it is. But I needed to go. Just go."
The combination of surgery and expectations collided and Carter relies more heavily on faith. In the first 46 games of his career, Carter had 25 1/2 sacks. But a bulging disk began hampering him in 2003, his third season, when he received six epidural shots in his lower back. The same injury, as well as a cyst, caused him to miss nine games in 2004. In 35 games since the start of the 2004 season, Carter has 9 1/2 sacks.
"It was tough. Everybody has their moments. It was definitely experience," he said. "Even though I've taken this real hard, I've never lost my faith. I constantly pray. It does get annoying, but you have to learn how to block everything out. In this business you're not guaranteed tomorrow. Back then, I did think it was all over for me."
Carter said he never had remorse about coming to the Redskins but admitted that the first half of the season was extremely difficult. He is considered an optimist by his teammates. Coach Joe Gibbs and his defensive coaches have praised him for his energy and effort.
"This year is the first year I started pumping the crowd up and dancing," Carter said. "Marcus [Washington] got me into that. . . . This last game, if it was my last game, I can say I let it loose. I had fun."
The Falcons rushed for 256 yards, but unlike most of the season, when teams would force Carter upfield and run toward him, the Falcons largely avoided the right side of the Redskins defense.
His team did not win the game, but for one moment, Carter was rewarded with a big game, no small consideration in a season in which large-scale successes have been in short supply.
"He needed to have a game like that. Everyone does," Daniels said. "He works hard and, hey, when you keep working, you want good things to happen, but it doesn't mean that they will. The sacks sometimes come slowly. They did for me."