Coach George Allen says that the $100 waiver price the Redskins paid for Eddie Brown three years ago is the best bargain in his seven years with Washington.
Brown, master of the punt return, has earned the reputation as a big play man and has evolved into the Redskins' most versatile player.
He returns punts and kickoffs, can perform more than adequately at all four regular defensive backfield positions and plays the nickel - or fifth - back in passing situations. It is no big deal, Brown says.
Brown, who wants to be a veterinarian, has a different life style than the average pro football player. He drives a jeep instead of a big flashy car. Whereas some players exploit their status in cushiony offseason jobs, Brown worked last summer at Pat Fischer's horse stable. He walked horses, groomed them and cleaned out their stalls.
From little Guild, Tenn., 20 miles southwest of Chattanooga, Brown went to the University of Tennessee with the idea of studying medicine. He switched from people to animals, he said, because he prefers animals to people.
"I figured out that I didn't want to have an office in a big city and people coming in complaining all the time." Brown said. "And I could be in the country with people I had a better understanding with. That's why I switched. I prefer animals over people, I guess. It's a crude thing to say, but it's true for someone with my background."
Brown was weaned on the Redskins and University of Tennessee football by his father.
"Washington was my favorite team even when I was growing up." Brown recalled. "My dad was a big Redskin fan."
When he was in junior high school, Brown remembers watching the exploits of Jerry Smith, Sonny Jurgensen, Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell on television.
In his rookie season at Cleveland, in his first full exhibition game, the opposition was the Redskins. And, on the first play, he covered Taylor man-for-man in a deep pattern.
"I was a little bit awed to begin with," Brown said. "Then I realized I was in the big leagues."
The pass was incomplete.
In college, Brown started out basically doing the same things he is doing as a Redskin; backing up at all four defensive backfield positions and returning kicks. He made the big plays there, too, once intercepting a pass at the goal line to save a win over Florida. And he was a punt returner extraordinaire.
"We were always setting up scores for people," he recalled. "When the offense was down, we'd get it down there and set up for them to score."
As Brown talked, he sat on a sofa at Redskin Park. His peripheral vision enabled him to see part of the wall behind the sofa. That ability, according to punter Mike Bragg and special-teams coach Paul Lanham, is what makes Brown a great punt returner, good enough to log 646 yards last season, second best in NFL history.
"He has a great ability to see the entire field and he has a great knack for setting up his blocks," said Lanham. "He's one step ahead of what he's doing."
Once he makes his first move after catching the punt, Brown said he is planning 10 to 15 yards ahead downfield.
"What's happening next to you, you have no effect on. It's happening so quickly, you have nothing to do with it," he said. "But 10-15 yards downfield, you can see what angles they're taking at you, and you can make your plans to cut back.
"If the punter is the last guy, I'm planning 10-15 yards ahead what I'm going to do to him."
When the NFL rewrote the rules four years ago to permit only two players on the punting team to leave the line of scrimmage before the punt, the punt return went from being an almost automatic fair catch - you went out to get popcorn" is the way Lanham described it - to the most exicting regular play in the game.
Brown disdains the fair catch, and Lanham says that the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Brown catches some punts that other returners wouldn't dare.
"I have confidence in my ability to catch the ball," Brown said. "If I can get just five yards, that's five yards less that the offense has to go.
"I don't like to fair catch, but I will if we have a block on, instead of a return. You have to be thwarted special-team attempts to block punts.
Also, the same rule that helps returners has realistic. One guy against 10 isn't very good odds." Said Brown: "It was much easier to block a punt before because everybody wanted to get off the line of scrimmage and get downfield . . . You need a great plan now."
Brown also says he wants to be a defensive regular someday, but realizes he will be an apprentice as long as Ken Houston and Jake Scott are active as Redskin safeties. So he bides his time with his big-time odds and ends. He knows he is in the spotlight as a punt returner.
"A punt return is something people like to see," he said. "There's a lot of contact: you're seeing a lot of blind-side blocks and people are getting hit. Let's face it, people in the stands like to see the big licks."