Irving Fryar, Marco Coleman and Larry Centers are not having their best statistical seasons. Each has had seasons when individual accomplishments put them among the best at their positions in the NFL. Centers once caught 101 passes as a running back. Fryar, through last year, was the only wide receiver in the league to catch 50 passes or more for eight consecutive seasons. They haven't put up those kinds of numbers for the Washington Redskins. But they probably do something more important.
They help run the team. They know when to speak up, when to call a team meeting, when to challenge a teammate in front of everybody, when to pull him aside for a private lecture, when to let silence speak volumes, when and how to go to the coaches.
Without them, it's highly unlikely the Redskins would have won the NFC East title.
They still contribute heavily to the effort on Sundays, they still play well enough for their actions to give appropriate weight to the words.
"They've all been in the playoffs, they don't talk just to run their mouths, they're all easy to listen to, and they're all good at giving constructive criticism," defensive end Kenard Lang said the other day. "And I think it works for guys like that because you can tell they're not trying to impress anybody."
Fryar, Coleman and Centers are the most obvious of the recently acquired veterans who take stewardship of the team when the coaches' work is done. Fryar, 37, is in his 16th season and has played eight playoff games, including an appearance in the Super Bowl in 1986 for the New England Patriots.
Coleman, 30, is in his eighth season and has played in five playoff games. Centers, 31, was certainly no fixture in the postseason, having played nine seasons with the Cardinals. But he did play in two playoff games last season. Norv Turner said last week, "Irving is a real vocal guy with a lot of good things to say. He loves to help guys and you need players like him."
There are others who fit the profile whose work in the locker room and on the practice field may be more subtle, including Andy Heck, 33, who is in his 11th season, and backup quarterback Rodney Peete, who is in his 11th season and has played in three playoff games.
Guard Keith Sims was acquired toward the end of last season, and his 10 NFL seasons and seven playoff games can only help what is still a young team full of key players who don't know the pressure of postseason play.
Darrell Green and Brian Mitchell no longer have to carry the entire load of leadership.
Phil Simms, the CBS analyst and former Giants quarterback, said at Redskin Park last week of the attributes of older players: "They're talented enough to have hung around the league this long, and they know how to work, how to prepare, how to conduct themselves and how to help younger players see why they should do the same."
Fryar has been a little too much of a secret weapon for my taste. There isn't a team in the NFC playoffs that wants to deal with him these next few weeks.
Fryar hoped to play more early, but he's been around long enough to know his impact on the field would be felt later in the season. His impact inside the locker room started immediately.
"I'd heard things about certain guys on this team," Fryar said, "but I found a group that already had good chemistry. What I've done at times is pull a guy aside and talked to him when I saw things that I used to do that probably weren't quite right.
"Have they listened? Yes.
"Sometimes you have to pull a guy in a corner and say, 'Look, man, you're staying out too late. You owe this team more than that.' Sometimes you do it in front of the entire team."
Fryar loved joining a team that had already added the hard-nosed Centers, well-known for practicing fanatically, and Coleman, whom he had played against in the AFC. "Marco is a very vocal guy," Fryar said. "He's a guy who grabs the team by the throat. He'll give you a tongue-lashing when it's necessary, or offer encouragement when that's necessary."
Turner pointed out that the younger players became all ears the first week of training camp when Coleman began two-a-days by blowing past them. "It'll be a struggle," Fryar said, "if you don't produce on the field."
A case in point of how this works for the good of the team is Lang. He's a defensive end with nice pass-rushing skills, but his playing time was reduced lately because the coaches are concerned about his performance against the run.
Lang says Coleman and Fryar have said, "Hey, everybody goes through stuff like this earlier in their careers. Don't get frustrated because we're going to need you."
Lang continued: "There's no sense in complaining and getting angry because that's not going to change the coaches' minds. But it's important to hear that from guys who've seen just about everything."
It's almost like management assistance, and Turner is appreciative. "Sometimes in this business, we get caught up too much in where a guy appears to be physically, and age," he said, "instead of how he plays. The guys you're talking about are very experienced, very smart. There are four or five guys in this league every year who get cut loose because of salary cap or [the system a coach is using]. And when you hear it from a guy who's been there and done it for a long time, it makes a difference."