By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008
Chris Horton's day began with an early-morning text message from fellow Redskins safety Reed Doughty. Doughty, the team's starting strong safety, had come down with the stomach flu and was writing around 8:30 a.m. to tell Horton he wasn't going to be able to play against the New Orleans Saints.
"I'm real sorry," Doughty wrote. Horton started sweating.
Eight hours later, Horton had completed one of the most remarkable starting debuts in Redskins history. The 249th player chosen in last April's draft was responsible for all three turnovers in a 29-24 victory. He helped stop Saints running back Pierre Thomas for no gain on a third and one late in the fourth quarter that made possible Washington's go-ahead score on its next snap. And the New Orleans native did it all against his hometown team, with his Saints-loving family in the crowd at FedEx Field.
"They were like, 'Hey, don't hurt us too bad,' " he said of his family members. "I think I hurt them pretty bad."
Horton's performance was the highlight of a mostly solid defensive performance from a unit stretched thin by injuries. Starting linebacker Marcus Washington was out with hamstring and hip injuries; he was replaced by second-year pro H.B. Blades, leaving Albert Fincher the only reserve linebacker. Blades made six tackles in his first career start.
"I know the kind of respect he has in this locker room already as a young kid," defensive end Jason Taylor said of the 5-foot-10 Blades. "I've learned that very quickly the kind of guy he is and the talent he is. I like the little kid. He can play."
The secondary was equally thin, with rookie safety Kareem Moore inactive with a lingering hamstring issue. Coach Jim Zorn learned of Doughty's illness early yesterday morning, further reducing the unit's depth.
"We took [Doughty] to the hospital this morning and tried to get his stomach calmed down, but every time he tried to jog he was throwing up again, so we just had to shut him down," Zorn said. "We had to decide how we were going to maneuver to put in the next guy, and what we decided is, let's keep everything as simple as we can and put in Horton."
That would be the same Horton who was the fourth-to-last selection of the 2008 draft, a 23-year old out of UCLA with a total of seven defensive snaps and one defensive assist on his NFL resume.
"I ain't lying, I was nervous," Horton said later.
"Man, this guy wasn't nervous," insisted free safety LaRon Landry, another Louisiana product who had worked out with Horton in high school. "The only thing we were saying was, 'Man, it's a different kind of game out there now. You know, you're starting and everything gonna happen fast.' . . . And he was like, 'Man, I've got this. I've got this.' When a guy tell you that, you know he's ready."
The first quarter could hardly have gone better for Horton. On the Saints' first drive, Rocky McIntosh stripped the ball from tight end Jeremy Shockey and pinned him to the ground, allowing Horton to pick up the loose ball; "that ball was sitting there forever," he later said. On the Saints' second possession, a quick pass from quarterback Drew Brees to Shockey was knocked into the air by Fred Smoot, heading straight for Horton; "right spot at the right time," he said.
That made Horton the first Redskins rookie to have an interception and fumble recovery in the same game since Smoot, seven years ago. Still, late in the game, defensive coordinator Greg Blache corralled Horton on the sideline and said he wanted more.
"He was like, 'Hey, I need a hat trick,' " Horton recalled. "And I looked at him like, 'What?' . . . I've never heard of that before. He explained it. It's like in hockey. I guess it's three goals or something like that."
Blache, Horton said, screamed at him on the sidelines for not knowing what a hat trick was, but he got the message and went back out on the field with about three minutes left and the Saints within one score.
"And man, in the right spot at the right time again," said Horton.
This time Brees's pass near midfield was intended for David Patten and tipped by defensive lineman Demetric Evans, winding up in Horton's arms for what he said was the first three-turnover game of his football career. The Saints never got the ball back.
And despite putting in a performance teammates said was worthy of defensive player of the week consideration, Horton wasn't willing to call this a perfect start.
"It could get better, obviously," he said. "I feel like on special teams I left some plays out on the field. I just try to be perfect every time."