With Fletcher's Arrival Comes a Sense of Security
Sunday, October 28, 2007; Page D01
The urgency was clear. London Fletcher realized this the moment his phone rang at 3 a.m. in the first hours of free agency and heard his agent say the Washington Redskins already had purchased a plane ticket in his name.
Gregg Williams needed him again.
They had been through this before when Williams ran the Buffalo Bills and Fletcher came from the St. Louis Rams to be his middle linebacker and ultimately the soul of his defense. In Washington, where Williams was the assistant head coach-defense, things had gotten very, very bad. In the midst of disarray and player unrest, Williams somehow lost his shine as a defensive genius. To restore it he needed a leader, someone he could trust. And in the NFL there was no player Williams trusted more than Fletcher.
Somehow, Fletcher should have known the first call would be from the Redskins. He had watched some of Williams's games on tape in the Bills' offices last year. Many of the same teams Buffalo played had also faced Washington, and because he was always interested in what his old coach was up to, Fletcher paid extra attention to the Redskins' defense. Normally in such situations he saw magic, the little bit of trickery for which Williams was notorious. Instead, as the chaos unfolded week after week and easy touchdowns piled up, Fletcher was shocked.
"I saw a lot of help needed in a lot of areas," Fletcher said the other day as he rested in the locker room before practice.
Never had Williams craved a player as he did Fletcher this winter. But then never had a player understood him nearly so well. "Gregg uses a lot of mind tricks," Fletcher said. "I think he was a psych major." Like the way Williams might deliver a message to one player by screaming at another.
In the gloom of last year the subtlety of such a gimmick was lost. But by then nothing was working for Williams. Adam Archuleta, the team's marquee free agent signing, proved a disaster, unable to fit into the system. This left a gaping hole in the defense that only grew worse with injuries to the secondary. Eventually the whole defense collapsed, finishing the season ranked 31st in the league. Williams went from being a mastermind to being attacked anonymously by a player as "arrogant" in an ESPN.com article. If only someone could come in and be the anti-Archuleta, someone who could explain the coach's methods to the players. Someone they could all respect.
Ultimately the Redskins paid Fletcher $25 million over five years to be that person. "The way I saw it, the Redskins needed me," Fletcher said, laughing. "The other teams that showed an interest wanted me."
It's hard to imagine that one player can change everything. But as Washington goes to New England today to play the most explosive team in the NFL, there is at least a thought that the Redskins might be able to contain Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. That never would have happened last year.
The simplest explanation is that Fletcher has allowed Williams to be Williams again. There is a frenzy with which Fletcher plays, the smallest linebacker diving into the pile up front to stop a running back or scampering back into the secondary to bat away a pass or tackle a receiver lunging for a first down. Last Sunday, he seemed to stop the Arizona Cardinals all by himself. His 10 solo tackles seemed more like 20 as they ended drive after drive.
"I don't have to worry about [middle linebacker]," Williams said. "I don't have to worry about him."
Now, with the middle covered, and Fletcher constantly reminding the defensive tackles in front of him where they should stand, Williams is free to be creative again, holding back his trademark blitzes and throwing extra players into pass coverage -- something that has already allowed Washington to hold down three of the league's best passing offenses in Detroit, Green Bay and Arizona.