Shawn Springs could have signed with Arizona, San Francisco or Jacksonville as a free agent last March and made his millions in comfortable obscurity as a star player on a rebuilding team far away from the glare of weekly scrutiny. But he chose to return home to the Washington area, where he was a high school star, and sign with the Redskins to replace the popular Champ Bailey, who is arguably the best cornerback in the NFL.
Coming off of three injury-plagued seasons in Seattle, many around the league wondered if Washington was wise to give the 29-year-old Springs a six-year, $30 million contract -- including a $10.25 million signing bonus -- to fill the void left by Bailey's trade to Denver for running back Clinton Portis. Others questioned if Springs had erred in accepting such a challenge.
Through the first seven weeks of the 2004 season the results for both parties have been overwhelmingly positive, however, as Springs has thrived and emerged from Bailey's shadow by leading the team with three sacks and three interceptions. The Redskins have the top-rated defense in the league.
"I came in with high standards," said Springs, a Silver Spring native, "and everybody made a big deal about Champ Bailey and with me coming in, everybody was like, 'Who is this new guy?' But that was one of the primary reasons I signed with the Redskins, so people would say hey, either I'm going to be a bust or I'm going to be a go.
"It's like when you're coming out of high school and you think you're the man, why not go to Ohio State or Michigan or Miami? That's the same philosophy I used here. For me I needed that, because everybody was like, 'Oh, he was hurt in Seattle,' and this or that, and a lot of times things that are said about me aren't necessarily true. I had the opportunity to go to about five other teams, but I really wanted to come here."
Springs, who attended Springbrook High School and Ohio State, was selected third overall in 1997 by Seattle and blossomed in his second season, when he started every game, intercepted seven passes (returning two for touchdowns) and returned a fumble for a touchdown, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. But Springs missed 14 games over his final three seasons with the Seahawks and began to hear the familiar whispers for players at his position: He was injury prone. He had lost a step. He was overrated.
With assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams running the Redskins' defense, Springs knew he would be given an opportunity to make plays with Washington both as a pass rusher and pass defender. "I knew about Gregg Williams," Springs said. "And I was like, man, that would be perfect for me."
Thus far, those words have proved prophetic. Springs entered this season with 1.5 career sacks and already has doubled that. His three interceptions, including two Sunday against Green Bay, match his best season total since 2002; Bailey had two interceptions and no sacks last season -- he was rarely thrown to and did not blitz much -- and has two interceptions this season for Denver.
Springs and fellow cornerback Fred Smoot have formed an elite tandem that quarterbacks have been wary of challenging. They have yielded just three touchdowns to opposing receivers all season.
"[Springs] is really a hometown boy and I think he likes playing here," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "I like his attitude. I think both of our corners have played outstanding. They've both had bumps and bruises and played their way through them, and I think it's been a real courageous effort on their part and they're really talented. . . .
"I think our defense has played extremely well, and I think a lot of it is because we've got corners who can play like that and play a lot of man coverage. It certainly helps everybody else also, because it allows you to commit more people inside. So our style of play is attributed to having those kinds of guys who can play corner like that."
Washington has not conceded more than one touchdown to a receiver in a game yet, and only one receiver has gained more than 63 yards through seven contests (Cleveland's Andre Davis caught three passes for 93 yards in Week 4). When the Redskins have allowed a big play through the air, a mistake by a safety has often been to blame.
"Were doing a good job back there, man," Smoot said. "We're picking up right where me and Champ left off. We didn't miss a beat."
Springs is one of only two NFL players leading his team in sacks and interceptions, and only four other players have registered at least two sacks and two interceptions. While he is accustomed to picking off passes -- Springs has 23 career interceptions in 100 games -- he had never been used this much on blitzes. Ray Rhodes, the defensive coordinator in Seattle last season who formerly held that position in Washington, planned to do so last season, but Springs broke a bone in his shoulder in the final preseason game, and could not use his 6-foot, 204-pound frame in such a physical role.
"Gregg lets me run," Springs said. "He lets me go to the ball and gives me an opportunity in the pass rush to use my speed and size to go around tackles. I'm big enough that I can take on the run and quick enough to go out and cover, too. It's kind of a unique combination."
While Springs has been disappointed by the Redskins' 2-5 start, it has not dampened his enthusiasm. He is almost always smiling around Redskins Park and is relishing his run of good health, feeling better after an ankle injury limited his practice time last month and nearly forced him out of the game against Baltimore.
"More than anything else, you know I'm happy to be here," Springs said. "I enjoy working here every day. I enjoy everything about it. That's why you see my energy like that, because I'm really enjoying this, man."