Year after year, Fletcher proves size doesn't matter on defense
Linebacker's force, mentality leaves imprint on his teammates

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- In the locker room, with another loss only a few minutes old, there was no snarl left on London Fletcher's face. He still had some grass on his jaw, blades from the Lincoln Financial Field turf that had not yet been washed off. Eye black smudged his cheeks. A giant bandage pinned ice to his right knee, and he endured the same routine he had endured 194 previous times in the NFL, yanking the tape from his joints, heading to the shower.

For the 96th time, Fletcher went through this routine after a loss, this one 27-24 to the Philadelphia Eagles. And before the eye black was gone, before his burgundy uniform pants were exchanged for jeans, the 34-year-old middle linebacker of the Washington Redskins handled it this way: "Next week, we'll be playing hard."

Many Redskins have said many similar things throughout what has become a lost season, one that will become the eighth time in 10 years that they fail to post a winning record. With Fletcher, though, it's different.

"He is our leader," said defensive end Andre Carter, selecting a word nearly every Redskins defender used Sunday. "You have to listen."

There are any number of things Fletcher couldn't do Sunday against the Eagles, namely prevent Eagles running back LeSean McCoy from scooting into the end zone on a game-tying two-point conversion in the fourth quarter. He could not stop the Eagles from marching 66 yards on their final possession, far enough to kick a field goal that gave them the lead with 1 minute 48 seconds left.

But he did just about everything else. Game statisticians credited him with 12 tackles, 11 of them solo hits -- a number that could change when the film is reviewed, one that is sure to keep him near the top of the NFL leaders. One of them was for a loss. He deflected a pass. He forced Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb to quicken his delivery.

The season is lost. Fletcher is not.

"For us, as far as having passion for the game, it's him," said Carter, who leads the Redskins with nine sacks. "Not saying we don't have passion, but as a [middle] linebacker, the engine of the defense, that's something that you feed off of. I just admire him. He's taken me to a level that I never thought I'd play at."

He has not, however, been able to take the rest of the Redskins with him. He hears often about what he is not (big and fast), and hears much about what he is perceived to be (undersize and overachieving). Sunday, though, he again showed -- in what could easily have been just another game in just another season in which he'll end up home for the playoffs -- what he is.

"A professional," cornerback Carlos Rogers said.

Fletcher is past the midway point of his 12th season, and the next game he sits out will be the first. According to the Redskins, he is about to lead his team in tackles for the 11th consecutive year. He understands the NFL better than perhaps anyone in his locker room. And yet, playing for a losing team on the road against a playoff contender, he showed some of the optimism that allows him to show up to work each week, each day.

"I thought, once we got the lead on them, I felt like this was going to be a little bit different than last week," Fletcher said. "I never really had that feeling like it's going to slip away from us."

Fletcher had something to do with creating that feeling. Take, for instance, Philadelphia's first possession after the Redskins went up 21-16 midway through the third quarter. McCoy took a handoff on second down, and Fletcher simply crushed him, stuffing him for a two-yard gain. One the third-down play, McNabb found explosive wide receiver DeSean Jackson coming across the middle, a step ahead of Redskins cornerback Justin Tryon. Jackson made the catch, and might have gained the first down -- except Fletcher stepped up and nailed him.

As Fletcher celebrated -- exhorting his teammates, striding to the sideline and waving his arms -- he didn't know that Jackson had suffered a concussion. This comes just five weeks after Fletcher's knee collided with the helmet of Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, knocking him out of a game at FedEx Field with a concussion as well.

In the moment, though, Fletcher couldn't know. So he let go.

"It's just letting out the expression, the emotions," Fletcher said. "Especially when you stop a team on third downs, you know they're going to be punting, those are big plays. . . . So sometimes you can get a little excited out there."

"When he gets emotional," Rogers said, "I run over and hit him on the head, jump around with him."

There was, though, nothing to jump around about by the end of the game. "You give up 11 points in the fourth quarter, you're not going to win many football games," Fletcher said. That's what the Redskins did, and they lost.

In the locker room afterward, when most of his teammates had already filtered out toward the bus, Fletcher returned to his locker to dress, and began talking to fellow linebacker Brian Orakpo. One pass, Fletcher explained, was completed on a seam route. Another came on a cross. The two -- one who will play his 200th NFL game by the end of the year, the other just 11 games into his career -- talked shop.

"He elevates my game," Orakpo said.

The bandage and ice bag were gone, and London Fletcher dressed, the last Redskin to do so. Next up: the undefeated New Orleans Saints. The approach: "This is our job," Fletcher said. "We have to be professional about it."

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