By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Shawn Springs is no longer the 22-year-old cornerback who entered the NFL as the third overall selection by the Seattle Seahawks in the 1997 NFL draft.
No longer does he depend solely on his athleticism -- though at 33 he is probably in better shape than most of his younger teammates on the Washington Redskins -- but rather on the mental aspects of the game. And while still a jokester in the locker room, Springs has become more of a leader and role model, coaches say.
But despite the changes that have come as part of the natural maturation process over his career, one constant remains: Springs is still the shutdown cornerback he always has been.
And following a summer in which he nearly walked away from the game, Springs again will be asked to lead a secondary that has struggled with injury and tragedy in recent years but will be vital to the success of the team in 2008.
"He's the glue, right now he's the glue of this defense," cornerback Fred Smoot said. "If we have anyone go down, he might have to shuffle [or do] whatever's best for the team. He's that guy right now; he's that card we can't afford to lose."
Springs has endured much off the field over the past year. His father, Ron, fell into a coma last October after what was believed to be a routine surgery to remove a cyst. And his stepmother, Adriane, had breast cancer diagnosed this past winter. The family struggles took an emotional toll on Springs, and this summer he briefly contemplated retirement.
"I don't want to say I was depressed, because I wasn't depressed, but I was just like done [with football], man," Springs said this summer. "I was really dragging for a month or so. I was hurting."
Springs eventually decided to return for a 12th season, and back at Redskins Park, he seems to have found solace on the field. "When I'm on the football field I don't think about much outside of being a football player," Springs said.
Around the team's headquarters, his sheepish grin is almost always visible. And along with fellow cornerbacks Smoot and Carlos Rogers, he can often be heard joking and laughing through the hallways.
Asked to describe the three cornerbacks' chemistry, defensive coordinator Greg Blache quipped: "You use the term chemistry loosely. Some of us call it weird science. They're a collection, I put it that way. They're a unique group. It's like when I'm turkey hunting, I can sit in the woods sometimes and hear the turkeys cackling and coming. I can hear that group cackling and coming long before I see them."
But Springs also provides valuable leadership and vital experience. Coaches say Springs's knowledge is respected by the other players and that his ability to make adjustments in games and in practice shows his football IQ and football savvy.
And while they likely won't admit it, Smoot and Rogers look to Springs as a leader, safeties coach Steve Jackson said.
"They do, but they'll never let you know that they do," Jackson said. "They respect his experience in the league, the things that he says, but they won't tell him. They won't tell anybody. . . . But they do and you can tell. When he says something, everybody pretty much listens. They may crack jokes about it or say something, but everybody listens."
In 2007, with injuries to Rogers and Smoot and the sudden death of Sean Taylor, Springs held the defensive backfield together by playing in all 16 regular season games despite suffering from a sports hernia. As the Redskins enter this season, Springs's flexibility and experience will again be vital for a unit that has been hampered by injury and that will have to rely on young players to provide depth.
The Redskins' secondary has plenty of talent, with Springs, Smoot and Rogers all experienced at corner and budding star LaRon Landry at safety along with Reed Doughty, who struggled in the preseason but performed well as a starter in 2007.
But Landry is ailing and Rogers is still easing back into play after a faster-than-expected recovery from a devastating knee injury. With little experience among the backups, the unit remains somewhat unstable. And Springs himself may be a game-time decision for the tomorrow's opener against the New York Giants at Giants Stadium. He has what the team said is a bruised calf after he was kicked in practice Monday.
The addition of Jason Taylor at defensive end should bolster the pass rush and help the pass defense, but it is Springs's ability to match up with the opposing team's top receiving threat and play different positions -- he can rotate into the nickel and also played some free safety this preseason -- that provides security given the unit's question marks.
"When you get a guy who has that type of experience that can play different positions, if guys go down you don't have to take one of your best players off the field," secondary coach Jerry Gray said. "He can just move to another position. If you're strong somewhere else you can just put another guy in. That's really the value he brings to our team."
The Redskins hope Springs can continue being that player this season as they look to once again reach the playoffs. And Springs said he's ready to provide any sort of lift he can.
"I just take pride in going out and working hard every day and really just trying to dominate my matchup and lead by example," Springs said. "I don't look at it as being the number one corner or nothing. I just try to do my job in the defense, and that's having the ability to make plays."
And while Springs may have lost a step since first entering the league, he still has the bravado of that young rookie out of Ohio State.
"Shawn, he's a little cocky, but most cornerbacks are," linebacker Marcus Washington said, smiling. "That's a pretty good quality to have. And he's a competitor. He comes out and he's going to compete. When you go out and line up against [him], you better bring your hard hat and your lunch pail."