By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Thursday afternoon, only five players remained on the practice fields behind the low-slung office building that serves as Redskins Park. As the others wrapped up post-practice drills, Chris Horton and Reed Doughty, two men who play the same position, walked off shoulder to shoulder, stride for stride, deep in conversation. Horton spoke, gestured, asked questions. Doughty listened, offered advice, provided answers.
"I'm not threatened by anybody," Doughty said later, before he headed to the locker room to further consult with Horton, the man who could, one day, take his spot. "I'm never going to slight somebody."
Doughty is a 25-year-old strong safety, drafted in the sixth round two years ago, beginning his third regular season in the NFL. He is a starter but not a star. Horton is a 23-year-old rookie drafted in the seventh round this year coming off a career-accelerating three-turnover performance in last weekend's victory over New Orleans. That jolt to Washington's defense came only hours after Doughty sent him a text message with news of a stomach ailment that forced Horton into the starting lineup.
Given that situation -- Doughty's inability to play and Horton's game-changing performance in his stead -- it would have been easy for two things to have happened this week as the Redskins prepared to host the unbeaten Arizona Cardinals. First, defensive coordinator Greg Blache could have inserted Horton into the starting lineup and not been questioned, for Horton was named the NFC's defensive player of the week. "There was a thought," Blache said.
Second, Doughty could have resented all the attention and accolades heaped on Horton, whose two interceptions came on batted balls. "I'd be lying if I wasn't a little jealous," Doughty said, "not because he did well, but everybody wants to be that guy that gets two interceptions and a fumble recovery in their first game."
Horton was that guy on Sunday in his first career start. The highlights he provided were obvious. But when the depth chart came out for the game against the Cardinals, who will put unusual stress on the Redskins' secondary with savvy quarterback Kurt Warner and top-flight wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, Washington coaches listed Doughty as the starter, Horton as the backup. The reason, Blache said, went beyond the in-your-face nature of the turnovers.
"Horton went in in relief and did a great job," Blache said. "We don't want to minimize that. We want to celebrate what he was capable of doing.
"But there's also some things that Horton did in the game Sunday that you all won't realize that we realize that still need to be honed up and tuned up. . . . There are some other things that, other than the three plays [fans] saw, that things happen, you go: 'Hey, dude. We talked about that.' "
Horton is well aware of those slips, and he even tried to play down his contributions. "I was just in the right position at the right time," he said. "The other guys made the plays. I just caught the ball."
It is, those who know him best said, typical of Horton, who grew up in New Orleans but played at UCLA. "He brings a lot of football intensity, and he knows the game," said his collegiate defensive coordinator, DeWayne Walker. "That's a good combination." Even as he became the Bruins' leading tackler, Horton was a constant on special teams, sacrificing his body and energy on kickoff coverage and punt protection despite being essential on defense.
"He's not a great, talented guy," said Gary DeLoach, who coached safeties at UCLA and now is the defensive coordinator at North Texas. "He's just not, and he knows he's not. He works hard and plays hard because he knows that. If he was a great talent, he would've went higher [in the draft]. But he's had to make his niche by being around the football. He doesn't see it through a glass eye that, 'I'm going to be the star.' He knows, and that helps him."
Those same qualities also help Doughty, who played at division I-AA Northern Colorado. In the Redskins' world, though, Doughty and Horton are as much defined by who they aren't as who they are. Doughty became a starter last season because Sean Taylor, a first-round draft selection with remarkable physical skills, was fatally shot in his Florida home, a death that shook the franchise. Taylor's locker remains at Redskins Park, sealed. Each day, his parking space stands empty as those around it fill up.
Taylor's talent and presence are gone from the Washington defense. It was left first to Doughty, now to the combination of Doughty and Horton, to shore up what had been a marquee spot.
"I think the biggest improvement, for me, was the first two or three games last year when I started," Doughty said. "I know everybody wants to talk about how much I needed to improve that first game. But I just learned so much being out there, not worrying about who's out there, just playing. I constantly feel like I got better. It doesn't mean I always had a good game. But I believe I can do the job. I don't think they'd put me in there if they didn't think I could do it."
Blache, for one, said he believes Doughty can do it. He ticks off his strengths -- "great character, anticipation, great knowledge, he's a professional, he works, he prepares," Blache said -- quickly. Now, he has another player he can trust to add to the package. The Redskins have one package, which Blache said is known as "cobra," that features three safeties. In those instances tomorrow, Doughty and Horton will be on the field simultaneously.
"You want your guys to understand we make decisions not based on one thing, but on the cumulative, everything you do," Blache said. "It is a lot of what-you've-done-for-me-lately. But as long as the guy you're fighting with is competing at a high level, you don't throw him under the bus because the other kid's a media darling this week."
That, then, was Horton's last five days, facing a bank of cameras on two separate occasions before practice. Doughty, whose locker is across the room, lost eight pounds from his stomach virus, but said, "I'm ready." That, he said, is true on two fronts -- to play, and to help the man who, for now, remains his understudy.
"If Chris or anybody [needs help] -- even if they draft someone in the first round next year -- I'm going to help him," Doughty said. "Because ultimately, if he deserves the job, he'll beat me out. And if he beats me out, it's because he's a better football player. I'm going to help other guys, and help myself, by helping other guys to make us the best team."