By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2008
Last summer, London Fletcher was the new guy, leader-in-waiting on the Washington Redskins' defense, a middle linebacker about to make the team his own. His first training camp with the team was a time of observation and evaluation, reading personalities, gauging when to impose his will, and to what degree.
A year later Fletcher, 33, is without question one of the dominant figures in the Redskins' locker room, a respected leader, a voice that can command attention. His first season with the club was an unabashed success, restoring grit and consistency to the interior of the defense and helping lift the unit back into the NFL's top 10. Fletcher remained a resilient tackling machine; he has never missed a game, playing in 168 straight over 10 seasons, including the playoffs.
Teammates gravitated to him, coaches trusted him, and Fletcher helped players cope with the death of safety Sean Taylor and make a remarkable playoff run. The man most responsible for bringing Fletcher from Buffalo as a free agent, former assistant head coach Gregg Williams, is gone, but his prized pupil's influence continues to resonate throughout Redskins Park.
"I think people know how I am now," Fletcher said. "They've seen a couple of different sides of me, and the way things happen, you can't take things personal. We have to be able to motivate one another, and there's different ways for you to motivate teammates. If I have to raise my voice a little bit, they understand."
Rarely in recent years had the Redskins rallied around such a vocal leader, and Fletcher's ability to directly criticize or praise offensive and defensive players alike was a welcome development. As the middle linebacker Fletcher carries immense responsibilities, quarterbacking the defense and making critical calls in the huddle.
He and Williams, now the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, shared a deep affinity born of their years together in Buffalo, when Williams was head coach. With Washington's defense in tatters after a horrible 2006 season, Williams turned to Fletcher.
"At this stage in his career people are wondering how much longer he can play at a high level, and London gave us everything I was hoping for last year, and more," Williams said. "And to this day as middle linebacker he's as close to any player on the field being an actual coach as you can have out there. He's always playing a step or two ahead of the opposition and he's the quarterback on this side of the field.
"We had a nonverbal way of being able to look at each other and just nod a certain way and we could communicate. Just a certain look and we could see that the other team was cooperating on what we were thinking, and I let him run with that. That's when you know you've got the right kind of player on the field. He's tough and athletic enough to play in the National Football League, and smart enough to be a coach. That's a special player."
Players of all positions, experience and compensation range supported Williams to replace Hall of Fame Coach Joe Gibbs, and when the process concluded with his mentor elsewhere, Fletcher was surprised. The heart of Williams's defensive staff remains here -- led by former assistant Greg Blache -- however, and the relationship between Williams and Fletcher is still strong.
"I do miss him," Fletcher said of Williams. "Gregg Williams, I consider him a friend, and I was very sad that things didn't work out for him to be here. We're still friends, and from that point things aren't going to change.
"But it's a business; players move on and coaches move on and that's the nature of the business. I wish him the best down in Jacksonville, but I've got to play for Greg Blache now. I've got to make him feel good about having me as his middle backer. That's just the way it is."
Williams and Blache are both taskmasters who share, among other traits, the ability to string curse words together. But even in that there is transition, as Williams's Midwestern-tinged expletives could sometimes sound a little hokey, Fletcher says, while Blache's are more straightforward and street-savvy.
"When Greg Blache cusses, it's like if somebody in my family cusses," Fletcher said. "It's a little bit different, a little more attitude behind it. Gregg Williams, when he cusses, sometimes it could be comical. When GB cusses, there's not that much humor in it."
Blache is maintaining much of Williams's defense, but injecting his own philosophy as well. The terminology is the same and many principles intertwine, but Blache is decreasing the overall volume of the system and deviating from some of the exotic blitzing schemes Williams had to concoct to compensate for a pedestrian pass rush.
"I wouldn't say it's a dramatic change in culture, but it is a little different," Fletcher said. "Coach Blache has his style, his way he wants to do things, and guys feed off that. He's a highly respected coach, and he has a real presence about himself, and I think guys will play well for him."
Fletcher must still be the conduit between coaches and players, someone who can explain by doing as well as by speaking. His role has not changed although his boss has, and Fletcher's influence is greater than ever.
"When you're the 'mike' linebacker of the defense, you're expected to be the leader," second-year linebacker H.B. Blades, Fletcher's backup and protégé, said of middle linebackers. "When anything goes wrong, you're expected to take responsibility, because everybody goes off of you -- off of your swagger and how you approach the game.
"If you go out there and you're soft and quiet, that's how the defense is going to play. If you go out there and approach the game fiery and with intensity like London does, then everybody can't help but to follow him. That stuff is contagious, and he's been doing a great job of that his whole career."
Fletcher, who won a Super Bowl with St. Louis after the 1999 season and overcame long odds to make the NFL out of John Carroll University, has continued to prove detractors wrong. And believes he has plenty of football still to give.
"What I like about London is that he totally enjoys the game," Redskins Coach Jim Zorn said, "and when he's on the field he's a football player. . . . He has this knack of turning his grit on, and he just pulls everybody up with him. He is a big man when it comes to his attitude about playing the game. Our players really respect him and respond to him."