Two years ago, Joe Salave'a was out of football, considering retirement and pondering what he was going to do with the rest of his life, but this afternoon he will again start at tackle for the top-ranked defense in the NFL.
At right end a few feet down the line from Salave'a will be Demetric Evans, who was never drafted, discarded by the Dallas Cowboys and spent this spring fighting for his football future in NFL Europe. Or, in certain situations, Ron Warner, a nomad who was cut by five NFL teams, played a season in the Canadian Football League and never started a game prior to this year.
Behind those linemen will be a linebacker corps that features middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, who was never drafted and spent the past three seasons primarily on special teams. Next to Pierce will be weak-side linebacker Lemar Marshall, another player passed over in the draft who was cut by three NFL teams but has thrived in the last seven games filling in for injured three-time Pro Bowl selection LaVar Arrington.
In the secondary, strong safety Ryan Clark also shares the distinction of never having been drafted. In New York last season, the Giants deemed him too small for the NFL, yet he has earned rave reviews in the last few games after replacing injured starter Matt Bowen.
For all of the millions owner Daniel Snyder has spent recruiting free agents, the Washington Redskins this season are being held together by a group of journeymen defensive players. The Redskins have the highest payroll in league history due largely to the heft of contracts of offensive players, including quarterback Mark Brunell, running back Clinton Portis, tackle Chris Samuels and wide receiver Laveranues Coles. But the offense is near the bottom of the NFL while the defense, playing without injured stars including Arrington and linebacker Mike Barrow, is rated first overall midway through the season.
Five of the Redskins' 11 defensive starters against the Cincinnati Bengals at FedEx Field today either were not drafted or were cut at least once; 13 of the 21 defensive players who played in last Sunday's victory over Detroit had those same modest credentials. If not for the unforeseen contributions from these football vagabonds, the Redskins (3-5) might be heading toward a truly horrible season.
"Guys who have been in these types of situations understand how quickly you can be out on the street," said reserve defensive tackle Brandon Noble, a veteran of NFL Europe who never was drafted and overcame a career-threatening knee injury to return this season. "You realize how nice it is to be here, but at the same time you get motivation from it because everybody has always said that you can't do it and you have a chip on your shoulder every week to go out and prove you can do it."
Rising to the Occasion
Finding unheralded players has long been a secret of Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs's success. But during his first stint in Washington those stories often emerged from his offense, where late-round picks and relative unknowns often blossomed into stars, especially at quarterback and along the offensive line. Gibbs spoke repeatedly before the season about the importance of cultivating low-level free agents.
"Sometimes it's the shockers that I get the biggest kick out of," Gibbs said. "It's the guys you don't expect. It's happened over and over and over again in football; it happens every year and what we're looking for around here, what we're trying to do -- which I keep harping on -- is we want a core group of guys and sometimes it's going to be an Antonio Pierce and guys like that who you are building around, and that's the temperament you want."
Although the Redskins have yet to face the high-powered Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers or Minnesota Vikings -- all second-half opponents -- the no-name defense has become the hallmark of the team, keeping them in games week after week. While the Redskins' offense has struggled, the defense has conceded just 10 touchdowns, held opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards six times and limited teams to fewer than 300 total yards six times.
Undoubtedly, the play of cornerbacks Fred Smoot and Shawn Springs, who were both high draft picks, has lifted the entire defense. Defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, who signed a $31 million free agent contract in the offseason, is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season, and free agent linebacker Marcus Washington, whose $24 million deal included a $7 million signing bonus, is shining as well. But the rest of the unit is upheld by castoffs and rookie safety Sean Taylor, the fifth overall pick last April.
Assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams, who spent the previous three years as head coach in Buffalo, is being heralded for convincing a cast of unknowns to buy into his aggressive style of play and succeeding despite a spate of injuries and departures. The Redskins purged a host of key veterans from last year's defense. Defensive end Bruce Smith retired, and starting linebackers Jessie Armstead, the team leader in sacks, and Jeremiah Trotter, the team leader in tackles, were cut, as was starting safety Ifeanyi Ohalete, starting defensive lineman Regan Upshaw and long-serving linebacker Kevin Mitchell.
Williams wanted younger and faster players, gambling on unproven talent, and his staff spent the offseason workouts, minicamps and training camps sifting through the remnants of the roster. Most players were a mystery even to these longtime coaches because there just was not much NFL game film showing the players doing things other than covering kicks and punts. "Honestly, I had no idea who most of these guys were," said defensive coordinator Greg Blache, who was hired shortly after Gibbs returned in January. "But I let them define who they were, and so far the definition of themselves has been pretty good. One thing I just tried to assure them of was they would be judged on what they did each day, and if they did what we asked them to do and if they work to improve themselves, then we'll find a place for them. It's a credit to them; when we've lost a guy, other guys have risen to the occasion."
Arrington has missed the last five games with a knee injury and likely will miss at least two more weeks, while Barrow, who was signed to anchor the defense at middle linebacker, has yet to play because of his knee injury. Bowen was lost for the season with a knee injury in the fifth game, and his replacement, Andre Lott, suffered a season-ending chest injury two games later, with Clark taking over. Defensive end Phillip Daniels, signed to an $11 million deal in the offseason, has completed only two games because of groin problems and is out indefinitely again, leading to the rotation of Warner and Evans.
"I think this past week we may have had the highest payroll in the history of sports sitting on the bench," Gibbs said.
The coaches praise the players who have filled in for their work ethic, noting that they arrive at Redskins Park early to watch film and linger on the field for additional work after practice. They are a low-maintenance group, the coaches say.
"It's maybe sometimes more gratifying when you see that," Williams said, "especially when you see some of these guys that have been told by many other places that they're not good enough to play in this league, and they've played admirably. . . . Quite honestly, maybe they've finally found the right home themselves, too, the right kind of style."
Profiles in Perseverance
Salave'a was not sure he even wanted to play football anymore in 2002. He had been released before that season by Tennessee after four years with the team and had been passed over by the rest of the league. Salave'a, who played rugby in his native American Samoa and did not put on football pads until his freshman year of high school when his family moved to California, already had made enough money to live comfortably. But after taking the time away to reassess his plans, he concluded he still had more football in him.
"I just had to sit out and see where my body was and my mind was," Salave'a said. "You've got to understand, I never really planned to be in this situation. Going to college, I was there to get a degree and get a decent job. I was using football to get my diploma, which I did; I never thought the NFL would be a reality."
Salave'a signed with San Diego in 2003 but appeared in only nine games and started just one before being cut. Washington offered him a one-year, $535,000 contract, and Salave'a has rewarded the Redskins with excellent play, stabilizing the interior of the line and helping the defense limit teams to an average of just 84 yards rushing per game.
"Joe Salave'a, was he even playing last year?" reserve safety Todd Franz said. "I don't understand that. That guy's an animal. We've got guys up and down our roster that are playing like that."
Franz, too, spent a year out of football, but is getting on the field regularly in passing situations. Between August 2000 and 2001 Franz was released by Detroit, New Orleans and Cleveland. After being cut by the Browns he spent the season working for his father-in-law's building company, doing framing and electrical work and deciding whether he should give up on football. Ultimately his wife, Tisha, convinced him to keep pursuing his dream and he bounced between the New York Jets, Green Bay and Washington in 2002 without playing a game, before getting his first NFL start with the Redskins last season and playing a bigger role this season.
"My wife, she's pretty wise," Franz said, "She gave me some good advice and it's worked out."
Noble was ready to walk away from football in 1999. Now 6 feet 2, 304 pounds, Noble was considered undersized coming from Penn State in 1997, and was signed and waived by San Francisco in 1997 and 1998 without playing a game. A strong 1998 season in NFL Europe drew attention, and Dallas signed Noble prior to the 1999 season.
"I had my degree, I was getting ready to get married and I figured I would go do something else, and I end up making the team in Dallas," said Noble, who earned his degree in criminal justice. "That was my third [NFL] camp, and I had told everybody before camp started that that was it, if I didn't make the team that year I was done and then next thing you know I'm starting."
Marshall and Pierce were relaxing after practice last week when the realization of their magical season sunk in. After almost never getting on the field together last season other than on special teams, they were preparing to start their seventh straight game side by side. "Who would have ever expected that me and him would be starting together?" Marshall said.
Tampa Bay signed Marshall as an undrafted free agent in 1999. The next year, he was released by Philadelphia late in training camp. He flew to Tampa the following day and signed again with the Buccaneers, played well in a Friday evening preseason game three days later, then waited by the phone the following Monday for word of the final cuts. The call was to come between noon and 3 p.m., coaches said, and Marshall began to celebrate around dinner time, thinking he had made the team, before getting a call at 7 p.m. The team was going to scan the waiver wire instead of retaining him.
"That was probably my lowest point," Marshall said. "I was like, maybe I should keep trying or maybe I shouldn't."
Marshall went back to Michigan State to get his degree in business management, was cut by Denver in 2001, but signed by the Redskins that Christmas day. He made his NFL debut in 2002 and started his first game in September when Arrington was injured.
Clark was not signed until July 31, with training camp already underway, after being released by the Giants at the end of last season. He had returned home to work as a fundraiser for his alma mater, Louisiana State University, and had made peace with his circumstances.
"I was like, 'God, if this is what you've got for me, then I'll be the best fundraiser in the world, and that's what I'm going to do,' " Clark said. "And that was cool with me. I was like, 'Maybe [the NFL] is not for me. I'm not going to be that guy holds on for too long.' "
Being around the LSU football program kept the sport on Clark's mind, and his thoughts sometimes turned to former college teammates who were playing in the NFL. Deep inside he hoped that a team would offer him a spot in training camp at safety, his natural position. Few expected Clark would crack Washington's roster much less rise as he has, and now his co-workers back at LSU are phoning each week to ask for his jerseys and wish him well.
"My boss calls all the time to tell me how excited he is," Clark said, "and I'm like, 'I'm still the same old kid that was working for you a few months ago and saying yes, sit and doing whatever you told me to do.'
"I'm still the same guy and it's just that now I've got the opportunity to play. The Redskins gave me that chance, man, and I want to show them every Sunday how grateful I am that they gave me this opportunity to play, and I think a lot of our guys feel that same way."