Earlier this year, a former Washington assistant football coach described the local NFL team’s headquarters this way to my colleague Jason Reid: “That place is like a reverse car wash: You come in clean and come out dirty.”
London Fletcher put on airs as if he had risen above the filth, retiring this past offseason after seven dignified, mostly Pro Bowl years at middle linebacker. Of all the players over the years who deserved better than the annual Team Turmoil story line, you thought “Fletch” was one.
You thought wrong.
Leave it to the team’s one possible Hall of Famer in the past 10 years to detonate his own carefully manicured image. Fletcher spent parts of Sunday and Monday painting Jim Haslett as a phony careerist and a dunce with a headset, using “backstabber” and “clueless” liberally — and then took on Haslett’s disbelieving son on Twitter.
Haslett, as defensive coordinator, was Fletcher’s immediate supervisor for the last four years of his career and kept him in the starting lineup even as his skills and speed waned, preserving the ironman streak for the immensely proud man.
It’s almost unthinkable, but Fletcher turned out to be just another outlaw trying to kill off another outlaw in this awful “Unforgiven” remake. Like Clint Eastwood’s original, it has absolutely no redeemable characters — not even the revered captain in the middle of the field, who proved it does indeed get worse.
Personally, it was more arresting than disappointing. Fletcher let me into his world to a degree while he was here, okaying me to tag along on his charitable endeavors for stories, always being the stand-up pro after every bad loss, diplomatically putting lipstick on a pig as best he could.
His calm-amid-the-chaos persona was actually better damage control than any spin Larry Michael or Sonny Jurgensen could put out. I saw him help kids who needed help. At work he seemed above the fray, the gossip, the infighting that’s destroyed the organization from any semblance of what it once was before Dan Snyder bought it.
Therefore I wanted to remember Fletch fondly, like New Yorkers remembered Don Mattingly from all those awful Yankee teams he was part of.
But there simply is no Haz-mat suit strong enough to repel the ugly toxins seeping through the vents in Ashburn, no antiviral drugs to cure what Pat Riley once termed “The Disease of Me.”
It’s true Haslett is a loose-lipped survivor, that his relationship with Gruden in a now-defunct arena league probably helped him stick around through an acrimonious coaching transition.
It’s also true that the franchise has used eight more draft picks on offensive players than defensive ones since Haslett was brought in by Mike Shanahan, and that almost half of the 17 picks used on defense since 2010 were between the fifth and seventh rounds.
It’s true Shanahan parceled out most of the team’s free agent money for his son Kyle’s offense before the defense, which at one point last season started four defensive backs whose combined salaries were less than left tackle Trent Williams’s.
I don’t know if Jim Haslett is a dinosaur as a defensive coordinator. I do know there was no way to find out with most of the lemons given to his unit since he got here — unless you think drafting Bacarri Rambo and pulling Ryan Clark from a crypt were bang-up moves.
During a riveting radio interview with the Sports Junkies on Monday morning, Fletcher named practically every coach he has ever worked with on any level as being far superior to Haslett, which smacks more of a personal slight than a professional one. It also discounts the real truth about Fletcher and some of his other revered bosses.
From Gregg Williams’s pay-for-pain bounty system to Greg Blache’s claiming the coordinator job before Williams knew he’d been fired, they all do what they have to do to keep working in Ashburn, just as Fletcher had to stomach some of Haslett’s play-calling to collect $11 million his final two years.
And if it’s that important for Fletcher to recast Haslett as a backstabbing crony, it’s at least as important to recast Fletcher’s career in Washington. He was never a true leader. Oh, younger teammates were always impressed and inspired by his ability to get his battered body ready weekly and be as cat-quick as he was to the ball as he got older.
But in hindsight, he was more of a loner than a leader, walking out immaculately dressed after every game in his pressed suit, looking dismissively at all his young teammates, who he was mostly convinced would never get it. Undrafted after playing Division III in college, the 5-foot-9 Fletcher walked out of the NFL with the same chip on his shoulder he came in with, the same chip on the shoulder he still has today.
Speaking out now, trying to come across as the good soldier during his playing days and a candid whistleblower now that he’s paid to talk about the game, has the stench of a former trusted White House adviser or appointee deciding to harshly criticize the administration once a book deal has been inked, not when it might have effected change that mattered.
If Fletcher believed things were so bad when he was here, he had a chance to speak up, be heard and fix things. If he wants to go after someone for being duplicitous, he doesn’t have to pile on Haslett; he can go look at himself in the mirror.
Fletcher’s now just as in need of a thorough cleansing as Haslett, as Shanahan, as Bruce Allen, as Snyder — as every last smelly and dirty one of them.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.