By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007
The urgency was clear. London Fletcher realized this the moment his phone rang at 3 a.m. in the first hours of free agency and heard his agent say the Washington Redskins already had purchased a plane ticket in his name.
Gregg Williams needed him again.
They had been through this before when Williams ran the Buffalo Bills and Fletcher came from the St. Louis Rams to be his middle linebacker and ultimately the soul of his defense. In Washington, where Williams was the assistant head coach-defense, things had gotten very, very bad. In the midst of disarray and player unrest, Williams somehow lost his shine as a defensive genius. To restore it he needed a leader, someone he could trust. And in the NFL there was no player Williams trusted more than Fletcher.
Somehow, Fletcher should have known the first call would be from the Redskins. He had watched some of Williams's games on tape in the Bills' offices last year. Many of the same teams Buffalo played had also faced Washington, and because he was always interested in what his old coach was up to, Fletcher paid extra attention to the Redskins' defense. Normally in such situations he saw magic, the little bit of trickery for which Williams was notorious. Instead, as the chaos unfolded week after week and easy touchdowns piled up, Fletcher was shocked.
"I saw a lot of help needed in a lot of areas," Fletcher said the other day as he rested in the locker room before practice.
Never had Williams craved a player as he did Fletcher this winter. But then never had a player understood him nearly so well. "Gregg uses a lot of mind tricks," Fletcher said. "I think he was a psych major." Like the way Williams might deliver a message to one player by screaming at another.
In the gloom of last year the subtlety of such a gimmick was lost. But by then nothing was working for Williams. Adam Archuleta, the team's marquee free agent signing, proved a disaster, unable to fit into the system. This left a gaping hole in the defense that only grew worse with injuries to the secondary. Eventually the whole defense collapsed, finishing the season ranked 31st in the league. Williams went from being a mastermind to being attacked anonymously by a player as "arrogant" in an ESPN.com article. If only someone could come in and be the anti-Archuleta, someone who could explain the coach's methods to the players. Someone they could all respect.
Ultimately the Redskins paid Fletcher $25 million over five years to be that person. "The way I saw it, the Redskins needed me," Fletcher said, laughing. "The other teams that showed an interest wanted me."
It's hard to imagine that one player can change everything. But as Washington goes to New England today to play the most explosive team in the NFL, there is at least a thought that the Redskins might be able to contain Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. That never would have happened last year.
The simplest explanation is that Fletcher has allowed Williams to be Williams again. There is a frenzy with which Fletcher plays, the smallest linebacker diving into the pile up front to stop a running back or scampering back into the secondary to bat away a pass or tackle a receiver lunging for a first down. Last Sunday, he seemed to stop the Arizona Cardinals all by himself. His 10 solo tackles seemed more like 20 as they ended drive after drive.
"I don't have to worry about [middle linebacker]," Williams said. "I don't have to worry about him."
Now, with the middle covered, and Fletcher constantly reminding the defensive tackles in front of him where they should stand, Williams is free to be creative again, holding back his trademark blitzes and throwing extra players into pass coverage -- something that has already allowed Washington to hold down three of the league's best passing offenses in Detroit, Green Bay and Arizona.
"He's like a guy who's almost like a wise old owl out there," fellow linebacker Marcus Washington said of Fletcher. "He just sees so much. He's able to kind of direct guys in the right path. He'll be like 'watch for this' or 'I think they may do this.' It's almost like having another coach on the field."
Last year in a debacle of a loss in an exhibition game at New England, Williams blitzed and watched in horror as Brady simply waited for the extra pass rushers to steam in, then coolly dropped pass after pass to his tight end, Benjamin Watson. In many ways the Redskins' defense was broken that night and never fully recovered.
This season Fletcher's presence in the middle has been so strong that Williams has barely blitzed. When he does, the surprise is there again, bringing with it a sense of danger the Washington defense hasn't had in more than a year.
They came to believe in each other in Buffalo even though Fletcher was there just two years before Williams was fired as head coach. But the relationship here is different, tighter, and not just because Fletcher felt the Redskins' urgency to have him, but because Williams is now the defensive coordinator, cutting away another layer of bureaucracy between coach and player.
At times Williams will pull Fletcher aside. Sometimes it's the other way around. The talks are subtle, maybe in the hallways of Redskins Park or an office or even the side of the practice field before the daily hitting begins. Often Williams will have a message to deliver to one of the other players on the defense -- a small piece of advice -- but words that sound so much better coming from a player than a coach.
And at the same time Fletcher occasionally will ask Williams to push a message in his daily speeches, something he senses the team is not grasping. Dutifully, Williams does it. If Fletcher considers it important, then it is.
"There is a trust with us," Williams said. "And trust for me is blanket."
Years ago, Jack Pardee, the former Redskins coach who hired Williams as an assistant on the Houston Oilers, told Williams that when scouting a player you can only see the tangible, physical skills. To know what they are like inside, you have to coach them, watch them every day.
Williams made tons of calls on Fletcher before he signed him with the Bills. Everyone told him the same thing: He was getting a great leader. But he never knew just how important this was until Fletcher was in his locker room.
Normally, Williams has a tactic for bringing together a defense. He will look for the player with the potential to be the best leader and carefully begin propping him up in front of the rest of the players, gently reminding them that this is the person they should be turning to. Yet when Fletcher arrived this spring, Williams did none of that. He said nothing.
Some of the other coaches noticed this and were perplexed. Given the way Williams had raved about Fletcher, wasn't this his next great leader? Williams just smiled.
"The gifted, natural leaders you don't have to prop up," he remembered telling them. "Just give him some time."
Through spring workouts and summer training camp, Fletcher said little and made no speeches. "No rah-rah-sis-boom-bah stuff," Williams said.
Then came the first exhibition game at Tennessee. In the short time he played, Fletcher was all over the field, glancing off linemen, knocking people down. Being London Fletcher. That's when they got it. So at halftime of the first regular season game, against Miami, when Fletcher stood in the FedEx Field locker room and implored his teammates to win, they listened.
Now when players come to Williams with questions about something in the defense, the coach shakes his head. "Go ask London," he'll say. And if Fletcher doesn't have the answer, Williams knows he will come to him and ask then take the response back to the player himself.
That's blanket trust.
Where would the Redskins be without it?