Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010; 12:05 AM
On the morning of Sept. 14, 2008, Reed Doughty found himself in the emergency room, a troubling enough development even if he weren't scheduled to play an NFL game that afternoon. Doughty had spent much of the night throwing up, and it was clear he wasn't going to be able to start at safety for the Washington Redskins against the New Orleans Saints. So he sent a text message to his likely replacement, a seventh-round draft choice out of UCLA named Chris Horton.
"Be ready," it said. "You're going to get your chance."
That day, in his second NFL game, Horton twice intercepted Drew Brees passes - both on tipped balls - and recovered a fumble in what was, at the time, a key Redskins' victory.
"Man," Horton said this week. "That seems like a loooooong time ago."
Two years later, the futures of Doughty and Horton are still intertwined. The latest chapter begins Friday night, when the Redskins play a preseason game against the New York Jets in East Rutherford, N.J. Doughty is scheduled to start at free safety. Horton will most likely relieve him. Either could end up the starter in the season opener, Sept. 12 against Dallas. And both are in that position because the presumed starter, third-year player Kareem Moore, is out at least a month following knee surgery.
"It's our turn," Horton said. "We have to be ready. That's our job."
Friday, the Redskins will face the Jets with a backup at quarterback (Rex Grossman for six-time Pro Bowler Donovan McNabb, out with a sprained ankle); a backup at fullback (Darrel Young for Pro Bowler Mike Sellers, out with a sprained knee); and a backup at free safety (Doughty for Moore).
"Somebody goes down," Coach Mike Shanahan said, "and somebody comes in."
Such is life in the NFL. On the Redskins, no two players know that better than Horton and Doughty. Since that day when Doughty got sick and Horton jumped in, Horton has started 14 games for Washington, Doughty nine. Each has a long history of stepping in because of injury or, in Doughty's case, tragedy.
It was Doughty, the year before Horton became a pro, who played in place of Sean Taylor when Taylor was killed during a break-in of his Miami-area home. It was Horton, then a rookie, who got the bulk of the playing time in 2008, when Doughty went down with a debilitating back condition that he thought might cost him his career. It was Doughty who took over when Horton suffered a season-ending toe injury last year.
Through it all, as they compete against each other for playing time, they often walk off the practice field together, chatting.
"Chris and I have really similar personalities," Doughty said. "We really try to be coachable, maybe sometimes to a fault. We've got to, sometimes, free up and be a little bit more of a playmaker. But with it all, we really try to help each other out. We're friends off the field. Really, I think it's as good a working relationship as you can have."
The back line of the Redskins' defense will change this season because LaRon Landry, who started each of the past two seasons at free safety, has been moved back to strong safety, his more natural position. Moore, a sixth-round draft choice in 2008 - the same year Horton was selected in the seventh - had been hidden behind Landry at free safety for his entire career, but had used this off-season and training camp to impress Shanahan and Jim Haslett, the Redskins' new defensive coordinator. But Moore's injury - suffered when the Baltimore Ravens ran a fake punt in last week's preseason victory over Washington - changes all that.
"It's really too bad," Horton said. "But we both have experience, and this is our job. We know how to do this, how to be ready."
Horton came into camp as the backup to Landry at strong safety, with Doughty the backup to Moore at free safety. Since Moore's injury, though, the coaching staff has said that the two will battle each other for the start alongside Landry in the first game against Dallas. Whoever ends up as the starter will be almost a completely different player than he was that day two years ago, when Doughty got sick.
"That is one of my best games, to this day, still," Horton said. "I just remember waking up real nervous, didn't know what to do. I had this look in my eye like, 'Gosh, it's gonna be a long one.' . . . I had mental errors. I blew some coverages. But there's one thing I did, man, and I'm trying to get back to that status. That's just run to the ball and fly around."
Since that game against New Orleans, Horton has just one interception and one fumble recovery. His approach, though, is different.
"Night and day," said safeties coach Steve Jackson. "He was just a raw, young kid. Now, he's a professional. He knows how to anticipate what's coming. He plays to make plays, not just to not get beat." Now, though, Horton is coming off the toe injury that cost him the final eight games of 2009.
Doughty, too, had to grow after injury. His back problems got so bad in 2008 that he couldn't walk around the mall without losing the feeling in his legs.
"It didn't just affect football," Doughty said. "It affected my emotional well-being. It was very discouraging."
After more than a year of rehab, Doughty came back in 2009 and had his best season, three times posting double digits in tackles before missing the final game of the year with a sprained ankle. Friday night, he will assume a starting position again. Horton will be there, too, pushing. However this latest competition works out, each said he'll be happy.
"If he's starting the game, I want him to finish," Doughty said. "I want him to succeed, because when I'm in that position, I want to play the whole game, too. You don't want to be like, 'Oh, I hope Coach pulls him and I get in there'."