By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Even though London Fletcher says he's hungry as ever, he isn't biting.
Whispers about unhappiness over his contract?
"I like my contract," he said.
Missing those offseason workouts?
"Was I the only one who missed one?" he asked.
And the perennial Pro Bowl snub?
"All of those individual accolades are not my focus," the veteran linebacker said. "I'm thinking about how I can help this defense and this team."
That's exactly what the Redskins like hearing from one of their most important players as the regular season creeps closer and closer. Not that they really needed to. Though Fletcher missed half the team's voluntary offseason training activities, Coach Jim Zorn says he never worried that any possible discontent would seep into training camp and the preseason.
Neither will publicly discuss the exact nature of Fletcher's brief standoff, but Zorn said he was initially concerned enough to call Fletcher.
"I wondered what was going on," Zorn said. "He said he had some personal things that he was taking care of. And it was fine. I heard what I needed to hear."
Fletcher worked out far away from Ashburn during the offseason, spending time in Arizona with Ian Danney of Performance Enhancement Professionals, the same personal trainer who helped trim down the offensive line, which included shrinking tackle Mike Williams to 337 pounds.
Fletcher has three years remaining on his contract. And though he had to watch the Redskins float big money to free agents such as DeAngelo Hall and Albert Haynesworth in the offseason, whatever was bothering him dissipated after speaking with Zorn, and Fletcher reported to Redskins Park midway through the offseason workouts.
"I don't have any issues right now," Fletcher said this week. "The Redskins are very well aware of why I wasn't here during the offseason workouts. I was not the only person who was not here. But they knew why I wasn't. I'm happy right now."
Talking to Fletcher gave Zorn the assurance he needed that the linebacker would again be ready to assume his role as the defense's leader. "He had a plan," Zorn said. "With other guys, I'd be much more likely to explain that he could be erring. If a guy's not established, I think it would be more of an advantage for him to be here. But it wasn't a crisis that he wasn't, because of who he is."
Coaches love who Fletcher is: reliable, a leader, injury- and complaint-free. Skipping offseason workouts was out of character, but it's in the past, they say, because Fletcher reported to training camp as committed as ever.
"He takes care of himself in the offseason, he knows what his body needs and he communicates with us well. He's always been that way," linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti said. "London makes my life easier. He really does. He's very professional. He helps all the young guys. He just sets an example, not yelling and screaming or anything like that. He's always professional."
Only three players in the league have made more consecutive starts than Fletcher -- Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Ronde Barber. In 11 seasons as a pro, Fletcher has led his team in tackles 10 times. In fact, no player in the NFL has more tackles this decade than Fletcher.
But still, Fletcher has never been elected to the Pro Bowl, an annual irritation that became too much for him last season. When Pro Bowl rosters were announced, Fletcher surprised many with his outspoken comments. He called himself "the Susan Lucci of the NFL," referring to the soap opera star who was nominated for Emmy awards 19 times before finally winning.
"I don't know if it was because I wasn't a first-round draft pick, I don't do some kind of dance when I make a 10-yard tackle, I don't go out and get arrested," Fletcher told reporters last year. "I believe in playing the game the way it's supposed to be played. You look at my body of work and I've done that for 11 years, but because I'm not going out causing a lot of controversy, holding a private meeting with the coordinator saying this, this and this, causing a lot of strife on my team, I don't garner a lot of attention."
That could change this season. The team is well aware that Fletcher isn't praised in every corner of the league. Aside from his dependability and his tackles (135 last season, tied for sixth in the league), Fletcher's stats aren't flashy. He has just three career touchdowns, had no interceptions and two forced fumbles last year, and hasn't had a sack since arriving in Washington.
Coaches say Fletcher deserved recognition in previous years, and they'll do their part to help him finally earn that trip to the Pro Bowl.
"One of the things I know in the back of our mind as a staff we want to try and help him achieve this, because he's deserving of it, because he does so much for us and he is such an unsung hero," defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. "So what we're going to try and do is try and put him in situations where he can kind of showcase his abilities and stuff. And I can do a better job of when I'm talking to the media and stuff, the production crews, talking about what he does and what he's capable of doing. A lot of it's salesmanship, and I can do a better job of selling him.
"Some of the best players in football every year never go to [the Pro Bowl]. The guys that do their job, that are unsung heroes, the real backbones of football teams often get overlooked, but if we can get him to make a few of the flashy plays to go along with all the things he does, then it's just another feather in his hat."
Fletcher insists the postseason recognition won't be in the back of his mind as he begins his 12th season. The truth is, even though he's 34, and whether he worries about the Pro Bowl or not, he could be better positioned for it than ever. Coaches say he hasn't lost a step and the defensive line in front of him could be the Redskins' most menacing in several years.
Despite the key offseason additions to the defense, players and coaches agree that Fletcher is still the key piece.
"London's the coach on the field," Blache said. "London takes the call. He can [interpret] it once things happen. There's certain things that I can call, but then once they break the huddle, he can see different things. He's got the ability and the leeway and the right to make checks and adjustments to take us out of a run front, and put us in a pass front or vice versa. To take and adjust the front from over to under. So he's got a lot of responsibility."
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.