By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 17, 2007
Amid the din and commotion of halftime Sunday, in those few spare moments before the coaches began their second-half tutorials and the players splintered into factions, linebacker London Fletcher commanded the attention of everyone in the locker room. Fletcher was a mere two quarters into his Redskins career, but 32 years into his evolution as a leader and, in this moment he became the voice of the team, a unifying presence for a long-suffering organization.
During the break between halves -- with the Redskins trailing 7-3 at home in their season opener -- Fletcher did something that players and coaches said had not occurred at halftime since this staff was assembled in 2004. He addressed both sides of the ball, with the room falling silent, telling his defense that the Dolphins' half-ending touchdown was unacceptable, vowing not to let that happen again and urging the offense to improve as well, knowing they were capable of much more.
The words and minutes were few, but Fletcher's message marked a departure from anything heard around here for quite some time and, players said, was a catalyst for Washington's 78-yard scoring drive to open the third quarter; the Redskins never trailed again. That Fletcher stepped up in his first regular season game with the Redskins and was applauded for doing so reflects his growing stature and the impact he has made since signing with Washington in March.
"That just shows the kind of character and the kind of heart this guy has about the game," defensive lineman Demetric Evans said. "He was like, 'Defense, we've got to step up. We gave up that TD before the half, and we're better than that. Offense, let's get it going now, we're behind you guys. We're at home, let's get this done.'
"I never heard a guy make a comment to both sides of the ball in a situation like that, and I really thought that was something we've been missing. We've got guys who lead the offense, and guys who are leaders on defense, but for a guy on defense to make a comment to the offense, or vice versa, is something we needed."
Should the Redskins require a lift against their division rivals in Philadelphia tonight, before a crazed crowd at Lincoln Financial Field, eyes will naturally glance his way now, much like Baltimore turns to its middle linebacker, Ray Lewis, or Chicago looks to its middle linebacker, Brian Urlacher. Of course, Lewis and Urlacher have been with their teams for years.
"I really appreciated him doing that, actually," Pro Bowl wide receiver Santana Moss said. "A lot of these guys get complacent -- and I'm not saying we do -- but in general guys get complacent and feel like you should only be over there [with the defense] and we should only be over here. But we're a team, and the only way we're going to be able to work together is if you make me accountable for what I'm not being accountable for.
"When he said it everyone heard him and it was the best time for him to say it. I was standing there thinking, 'That's what I remember it being like with the Jets [Moss's team from 2001-2004].' After he said that, I felt like you don't have to worry about nobody ever looking not to hear that from him, because once he showed me that part of him, I feel like I'm always going to look towards him for that kind of role, because he set the tone already."
The scene could have been awkward. Instead, it was genuine and natural.
"Not everybody could pull that off," Evans said. "It takes a guy who has the confidence in himself knowing he's going to go out there and lay it on the line."
Privately, some coaches worried about how Fletcher's delivery might be received, but they needn't have worried. "He captured the moment," one coach said. "That room was his."
Fletcher, an undersize linebacker from tiny John Carroll who has disproved naysayers his entire career, was Washington's primary offseason target for a multiple reasons. Some were quantifiable -- his ability and durability (never missing a game in his 10-year career) and mastery of this defensive system -- and others less tangible (determination, professionalism, willingness to mentor others, character on and off the field). Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, coached Fletcher for two seasons in Buffalo and identified the free agent as the central addition to help rebuild his 31st-ranked defense, believing he could not only aid their coverage and run-stuffing, but breathe life into the unit as well.
Scouts chattered about how flat Washington's defense appeared in 2006, lacking spirit and playmakers. Fletcher, who won a Super Bowl with St. Louis after the 1999 season, already is being counted on to provide that heartbeat on the practice field, in the huddle on game day and in meetings.
"London's not the type of guy to try to come in here and demand respect," former Pro Bowl linebacker Marcus Washington said. "He's definitely earned it through his play and more. If he saw something he didn't think was right, or if we could have done something better, he'd say something, and it's a credit to him and the type of player he is."
As he got to know his teammates, Fletcher compiled mental notes, learning what made certain players tick and gauging the locker room dynamics. It was only a matter of weeks before he was a central figure during film sessions, aligning players at positions other than linebacker, and by the start of training camp he was one of the defense's conductors.
"I feel like if you're going to say something, you also have to be able to produce," said Fletcher, who was uncomfortable discussing the specifics of his halftime speech. "And through my years in the league I've been one of the guys who's been a vocal guy on any particular team, along with some other guys. And we've had that here, guys who lead by example and lead through their production, and at various times through the course of the season there's going to be times when you have to say something."
The coaches released three of their senior-most defenders just before the season in a calculated gamble. All -- linebacker Lemar Marshall and linemen Joe Salave'a and Renaldo Wynn -- had been starters at one point and were selfless leaders, but coaches knew Fletcher would rise to fill the void.
"London has always been able to get the people around him to play better," Williams said.
Fletcher, who generally maintains a low profile, already has flashed his deceptive quickness, his toughness, his knack for avoiding blocks and navigating the field laterally. He led the Redskins with 12 tackles against the Dolphins and was vital as the defense limited Miami to 3.3 yards per carry. Williams expects his middle linebackers to be his eyes, ears and mind on the field -- directing teammates; making the on-field calls -- and already, players say, this is becoming Fletcher's defense.
"He makes all the adjustments and everyone is doing what he's saying and everyone is responding to what he's saying," reserve linebacker Khary Campbell said. "It has become his defense because everyone else is buying into what he's saying."
The season is still in its infancy, but Fletcher's influence is manifesting in all corridors. On a team of dominant personalities like eccentric tailback Clinton Portis and brooding safety Sean Taylor, he stands out simply by being himself.
"Some of the guys on this team can be real controversial, and London, he's just a laid-back guy," said fullback Mike Sellers, one of the vocal leaders on offense. "But when a man like that decides to speak, you listen. He made his point at halftime in a respectful way, but then again in a way that really got your attention. On offense, a lot of guys might have been like, 'Shut up and stick with defense.' But that's not the way it was.
"When we were in the shower after the game I told him, 'Man, I appreciate what you did, because a lot of guys on this team might try to do that, but they would strike the wrong nerve with some guys.' But the way London went about doing it, man, it was nice. I gave him props for that."