By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Even during the dog days of summer, when the drudgery of training camp has sapped the energy of everyone else, Marcus Washington's mouth is running. His incessant chatter has become the soundtrack to Jim Zorn's first NFL training camp as a head coach, and is an indication of just how invigorated Washington finally is feeling.
For the first time in years, Washington is not coming off one major surgery or another, and he is aiming to get back to the Pro Bowl level at which he played in 2004. Someone who embodies a "whistle while you work" mentality even in the worst of times, Washington has lightened practices with his boundless antics and rapid-fire trash talk, making the recently completed two-a-days more bearable for players and coaches alike.
"One year he had the elbow, another year had the cyst [on his tailbone], another year he had the hip," said defensive coordinator Greg Blache, running down the linebacker's list of injuries. "This is the first year in about three years where he's been totally healthy all offseason, and now he's got an opportunity and you can tell just by watching him that he's feeling good now."
Washington, 30, enters his ninth season full of enthusiasm, and could be the player to benefit most from upgrades to the defensive talent over the past two years. A minor hip flexor is the only issue to crop up, limiting his practice yesterday. "I might rest it over the weekend just to be safe, but it's not anything we're worried about," Washington said.
He's been back on the field, for the most part, and he and cornerback Fred Smoot have initiated good-natured sparring with the offense on a daily basis. At times it seems as if Washington may not quite comprehend everything coming out of his mouth, but even the occasional non sequitur gets the rest of the defense rolling.
"We don't negotiate with terrorists!" he barked to the offense after the defense was dominating during one recent practice. The following afternoon, he set after rookie tight end Fred Davis. "Hey, 86 [Davis's number], don't take this day off." One morning, Washington playfully taunted the offensive line before a series of one-on-one drills with the defensive line. "We got you for five minutes today," he said. "Get over here! We gonna get you boys. Get those cameras on this. You can't leave yet. They scared of us."
Smoot, known around the league for his gift of gab, gets most of the attention, but Washington has often been the ringleader this summer.
"I talk all the time, but I've got some co-signers out here, like Smoot," Washington said. "We try to keep each other going, man. It's just great to be out here healthy and able to train all year. I feel like I'm back on the same page as everybody else, and I didn't have to play catch-up. It makes a difference when you're pretty sure of yourself."
Smoot said: "All trash-talkers know we need companions. And when you've got another person out there to hold the fort up when you ain't feeling good that day, it excites you. You can tell he's feeling good and you know his morale is high. If your mind is right, it can change the way your body feels sometimes. That's what some players get out of talking trash."
Zorn, who did not know much about Washington's attitude before he arrived here, has embraced the linebacker's ways. Though Washington, picked 59th overall by the Indianapolis Colts in 2000, went a little too far last week and was chided by Zorn for smacking the backside of quarterbacks to signify a sack in drills -- passers are never to be touched -- his teammates on offense say they relish the abuse they've received this preseason. They know it is a sign that one of the key playmakers could be poised for big things again.
"It's like he's on Gummi Bear juice the way he's been bouncing around over there and going crazy," center Casey Rabach said. "He's great to have on the team. He's enthusiastic and the guy just loves football, day in, day out, and he's always flying around making plays. It's kind of hard to get mad at him. He's such a goofy dude sometimes, and you just want to laugh with him."
Washington, notorious for singing and shouting during television timeouts with the stadium music pumping, has been increasingly upbeat about the additions to the defense. For much of his time here, he has been a rare dynamic talent among the front seven, facing additional attention from opponents every week. He was a tackling machine capable of game-changing moments during his first two seasons.
Injuries slowed his production, as did the lack of other weapons -- Washington has played alongside marginal linebackers such as Warrick Holdman and Lemar Marshall for much of his time here. Adding elite middle linebacker London Fletcher last season elevated the entire defense, and, when healthy, Rocky McIntosh has shown the ability to get to the ball quickly and pummel opponents on the weak side.
The trade for defensive end Jason Taylor last month was the crowning acquisition, however. Taylor, the 2006 NFL defensive player of the year, is slated to play primarily on the left side, in front of Washington, the strong-side linebacker. Given Taylor's abundance of pass-rushing moves, teams have to focus on him, leaving linebackers with fewer blocks to shed.
"Hopefully, they'll pay more attention to [ends] Andre [Carter] and Jason, and leave me alone," Washington said, "and I can run in there and get some easy plays."
Washington's diverse skill set, passion for contact and sure tackling are his greatest assets, with his role changing slightly over the years. He was used in more downfield coverage earlier in his career here -- especially within the cover-2 scheme -- and with the team lacking a sustained pass rush thrust in recent years, Washington often has taken practice reps with the defensive line and played as an end in the nickel package.
Now, he works only with the linebackers.
"Last year we had a need, but right now he's more of a luxury for us as a pass rusher," Blache said. "We'd like to bring him on some blitzes from his linebacker spot from time to time, but this allows him to focus on linebacker more, and not have to be as divided in his learning time and in his practice time."