By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 30, 2006
As the Washington Redskins lost a two-touchdown lead to the St. Louis Rams last Sunday and watched a game they had controlled lurch toward overtime, Coach Joe Gibbs stood on the sideline knowing that a victory would give the team consecutive wins for the first time since October and a chance at finishing the season on an upswing.
But Gibbs also wanted a victory to validate the performance of Redskins safety Vernon Fox, who had the kind of game about which players dream. He had 10 tackles, nine of them solo, plus six special teams tackles -- 20 percent of the total recorded by the entire team.
In addition, Fox blocked a punt in the second quarter.
"That Vernon Fox last week, I wish we had won that game, so we could have given him the awards and everybody would have written about him," Gibbs said. "You lose some of that when you lose football games. That was one of the best performances I've ever seen. I've never had one like that. Every tackle on kickoffs, 11 tackles on defense and blocked a punt. I've never had that."
On fourth and 16 from the St. Louis 31 and the Redskins trailing 14-7, Fox raced through the middle and blocked the punt of former Redskins punter Matt Turk. The ball bounced out of bounds at the Rams 8-yard line and two plays later, Ladell Betts ran around the left side for a six-yard touchdown. It was the first of 21 consecutive points for Washington as the Redskins took a 28-14 lead.
"It was just an awesome day," Fox said. "Obviously, it would have been much nicer had we won. I was so sore after that day."
For Fox, a player who was released by the Detroit Lions and signed by the Redskins in August, the last two months in Washington have breathed life into his career.
Fox, 27, is starting at safety alongside Sean Taylor, playing the position the Redskins had expected would be filled this season by free agent Adam Archuleta. But his pedigree isn't anything like that of those two Redskins. Taylor was the fifth pick in the 2004 draft and has been a starter since the day he arrived in Washington. Archuleta signed a seven-year, $35 million free agent contract in March with $10 million in guaranteed money.
The San Diego Chargers signed Fox as an undrafted free agent from Fresno State in 2002. Fox has never been offered a signing bonus and none of his contracts has been guaranteed.
"It was a difficult situation. Face to face, they told me that now was the time to prove I was more than a special teams player, but from Day One I was playing with the rookies. I was with the third group. It was frustrating," Fox said of his days with the Chargers. "You try to stay away from that part. You know it's a business, but it does hurt you when you get released, especially in situations where you've been limited and haven't been given the opportunities, and that was the situation I felt in Detroit."
When he was released by the Chargers and signed by Detroit in 2004, Fox was primarily a special teams player on one of the worst teams in football. "Toward the end of last season, I asked the coaches what I could do to improve my chances to get on the field, and they kept telling me I had to prove to them that I was more than just a special teams player," he said. "I knew I was more than just a special teams player, and for some reason or another I never got the opportunities."
The Lions released him Aug. 28, but Fox received a call from Gibbs in less than 24 hours.
"I had my bags packed and I was on my way back to Las Vegas to go and see my wife," Fox said. "I was going to spend some time with her and never got there."
Fox did not play immediately in Washingon. First, Archuleta was benched in favor of Troy Vincent. After Vincent went down with a hamstring injury during the Redskins' 20-17 loss at Tampa on Nov. 19, Fox has started at safety ever since.
"It's tremendous to see him have success like that. Every player wants to define themselves as an offensive or defensive player, and he's made his mark as a special teams guy," Vincent said.
"Even when I felt like I was healthy enough to go in. Vernon stepped back for the Atlanta game, and I told him, 'You go,' because you could see him find the rhythm. The only way you get better in this league is you have to play."
For a secondary that has not made many big plays this season, Fox intercepted Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme on the first series of his first start, a 17-13 win against Carolina on Nov. 26. He has struggled at times in the open field, such as a week later when Falcons running back Jerrious Norwood ran past him for a 69-yard touchdown.
Fox is also upset about a play that may have given the Redskins another chance against the Rams. With 9 minutes 44 seconds remaining in overtime, the Rams lined up on third down and three on the Redskins 32. A stop would have forced a 50-yard field goal attempt.
The initial formation was a single running back, with former Redskins running back Stephen Davis lined up behind Rams quarterback Marc Bulger and halfback Steven Jackson in the slot.
To that point Jackson had gained 126 yards rushing on 31 carries. He'd had 102 yards receiving, and thus lining him up in the slot represented a real threat. Jackson shifted behind Davis, giving the look of an I-formation.
At the snap, Jackson flared out to the left. Rookie Redskins linebacker Rocky McIntosh and Fox took the bait. Bulger handed off to Davis, who crossed the first-down marker. Two plays later, the Rams scored and the game was over.
Fox will be a free agent after the season. Regardless of the future, his story is a triumphant one, Gibbs said.
"Here's a guy that somehow, we got him," Gibbs said. "He had been released. I love that part of it. He's a great story."
Notes: The Redskins placed linebacker Khary Campbell on injured reserve because of a sore hamstring. Joe Sykes was signed from the practice squad.