By Rick Maese
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; D04
For the past three seasons, Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache has watched his top linebacker wreak havoc every Sunday, only to be slighted late in the year when Pro Bowl votes are tallied.
He says he's not oblivious to the reasons, and Blache broke his media silence this week to explain why London Fletcher is one of the game's most consistent and dependable defensive players yet hasn't reached a Pro Bowl in 12 seasons.
"The thing that hurts London is that he doesn't act like an idiot every time he makes a tackle," Blache said. "He doesn't bring that attention to himself. He's a football player, not a showman. He takes great pride in his football, and he has great respect for the game. He acts the way a professional is supposed to act, and consequently, it's cost him."
Blache hasn't fielded reporters' questions since turning over his media responsibilities to secondary coach Jerry Gray on Oct. 8 for what Coach Jim Zorn said at the time were "personal reasons." His only comment since was a brief defense of team owner Daniel Snyder last month.
With Pro Bowl voting nearing its conclusion and with at least a couple of his players generating buzz for the annual postseason game, Blache agreed to discuss the merits of his top defensive players. He granted The Washington Post's interview request on the condition that the discussion be limited to his players, not his extended media silence.
In making a case for his players, Blache was animated, passionate and blunt, saying rewards often fall to the game's flashiest players, not necessarily its best.
"There are some guys who don't show respect for the game but bring this look-at-me attitude to it, and strut and dance and prance every time they do something that they're paid to do. And that gets people's attention," Blache said. "That doesn't mean you're a great player; it means you take attention away from the unit and put it on yourself. So London has been hurt over the years by his own character, his own professionalism, his class, his own respect for the game."
Fletcher has more tackles in the past decade than any other player. When he was passed over for the Pro Bowl last season, he called himself "the Susan Lucci of the NFL," referencing the television actress who was nominated for 19 Emmys before she finally won. At 34, Fletcher is turning in his best season since joining the Redskins, Blache said. The team compiles its own statistics based on coaches' film and credits Fletcher with 144 tackles, only two less than he had all of last season.
Tackles are not an official statistic, but according to the league's numbers, Fletcher is tied for second in the NFL with 118 tackles, five behind San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis.
Willis, though, also has three sacks, two interceptions -- including one that was returned for a touchdown -- and a pair of forced fumbles. Fletcher, meanwhile, has two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.
Carolina linebacker Jon Beason is also statistically similar to Fletcher with the same number of tackles and a pair of sacks. But he has three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Seattle linebacker David Hawthorne has just 93 tackles, but he has four sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Blache said statistics don't tell the full story of every player, and, numbers aside, he thinks casual observers "don't have a clue of all the things London brings to the table."
"He is our coach on the field, as far as getting guys aligned, making checks, recognition, calling out offensive sets," he said. "The guy is smarter than a lot of assistant coaches that I've worked with."
Players are voted into the Pro Bowl by fans, coaches and players with each group's ballot accounting for a third of the voting. Fans can vote at NFL.com until the online polls close at the conclusion of Monday's Giants-Redskins game. Players and coaches will then cast their ballots, and the teams will be announced Dec. 29. This year's game is slated to take place one week before the Super Bowl, on Jan. 31, 2010, in Miami.
The league released early leaders based on fan voting through November. No Redskins were included. Willis was the NFC's top inside linebacker, Dallas's DeMarcus Ware the top outside linebacker, while Minnesota's Jared Allen received the most votes of any defensive end in the conference.
Sean Taylor (2006 and '07) is only Redskins defensive player to earn Pro Bowl honors since 2004.
"London should have gone last year and he should have gone more than once," said defensive end Andre Carter. "You talk to guys around the league about London and you'll hear how respected he is. He plays the game the way you're supposed to play."
Carter is another Redskins veteran who has built a compelling case for Pro Bowl consideration. He's tied for fourth in the league with 11 sacks and has tallied 57 tackles -- including 12 for a loss -- the most at his position. The team credits Carter with 82 tackles, which is already a career high, according to the team's media guide. His previous best, according to team-kept numbers, was 72 tackles in his 2006, his first year in Washington.
In his ninth season, Carter has never been selected to the Pro Bowl, a streak that Blache thinks should end this season.
"Andre is the player every coach wants. He wants to do things exactly like you ask him," Blache said. "If I have a criticism of Andre, it's that he sometimes tries too hard to please you. Andre is a great piano player, and sometimes I have to tell him: 'Dre, it's like you're playing the piano. Close your eyes and play. Feel the music, feel the game. Just play.' And when he does that, he's awesome."
The Redskins had just 24 sacks last season. Through 13 games this year, Carter and rookie Brian Orakpo have combined for 22 by themselves. They enter Monday's game as the league's most prolific sack duo thus far.
Orakpo had four sacks last Sunday against Oakland and has forced his name into the defensive rookie of the year conversation.
Blache is on record as a coach who has little tolerance for first-year players. But he says Orakpo, who lines up as the team's strong-side linebacker and defensive end, is different.
"No disrespect to them, but the other rookies in this class -- the other rookies in last year's class -- he's heads and shoulders above them," Blache said. "This guy walks in here, and he prepares like a man. A lot of the rookies, you have to worry because they're talking about all these things that are unrelated to football. They know more about Game Boys than game plans. That's not what he's about."
Orakpo might be a long shot for the Pro Bowl because most of his sack numbers have come as a defensive end, and he's listed on the ballot as a linebacker, where he spends the majority of his time.
He was chosen as an end in the first round of last spring's NFL draft, the 13th overall pick, and was almost immediately moved to linebacker. Blache thought the conversion might be a slow one, and Orakpo would begin the year playing more often with his hand on the ground.
"I was not as big an Orakpo fan as Vinny and our scouting department initially," Blache said of Vinny Cerrato, the team's executive vice president of football operations. "Once we got him, though, I fell in love with him because of his maturity, because of his work ethic."
Orakpo has already set the franchise's mark for sacks by a rookie, and with three games remaining, he's 3 1/2 sacks shy of the league's rookie record. Tennessee's Jevon Kearse had 14 sacks in 1999.
"That's one thing about me, I don't aim for anything," Orakpo said. "I just go out there and play. If it happens, it will be a huge honor. But that's not my number one goal."