In whatever situation, under whatever coach, throughout all the ups and downs, the Washington Redskins and their fans always have known London Fletcher and Santana Moss as the embodiment of dependability.
If the Redskins needed a big stop on defense, more times than not it would come from Fletcher. A big play on offense? Moss — regardless of who was at quarterback — was the favorite. That was then, however. Age may finally be catching up with the two long-serving teammates. Fletcher and Moss remain two of the most respected members of the team. But gray has started to pop up here and there in the stubble. Twitch reflexes don’t appear as on point. Big plays are far less frequent. Roles have started to shift.
For the first time in seven seasons with Washington, Fletcher, 38 and in the 16th year of his career, doesn’t lead the team in tackles; fellow inside linebacker Perry Riley owns that distinction. Fletcher has started coming off the field here and there to get a breather.
After eight seasons of leading the Redskins in catches, yards or touchdown receptions, Moss, 34 and in his 13th season as an NFL wide receiver, now seems like an afterthought in the offense. Quarterback Robert Griffin III looks most often to wideout Pierre Garcon and tight end Jordan Reed.
At 2-5, the Redskins are in the kind of unfavorable situation in which they would have looked to the two veterans in the past. It remains to be seen whether they can emerge as the solutions again as their careers begin to wind down.
Redskins coaches say they still have confidence in both.
Fletcher serves as the captain of the defense and a coach on the field, lining up his teammates in proper formations and barking out instructions while reading the opposing quarterback.
“I think London’s the leader of our football team. He’s kind of like Ray Lewis when he was in Baltimore, that he runs everything,” said defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, a former linebacker. “He has great leadership skills. He has an innate ability to find the football. He still does great in pass coverage. London is one of the best of all time.”
Coach Mike Shanahan said Moss, whose playing time has fluctuated this season, is “the same as he was a year ago.” He added, “I know we haven’t had the numbers the last few weeks, but I really believe he does” still have big-play ability.
The numbers haven’t been there for either player this year.
Fletcher hasn’t met ballcarriers at the line of scrimmage with the same brute force this season. At times, he has struggled to shed blockers and get to the hole. He also has narrowly missed tackles he would have made in the past.
Fletcher generated double-digit tackle performances with regularity in past seasons and last year recorded seven — including a 20-tackle outing vs. Atlanta. He ended last season with 139 tackles, in addition to five interceptions and 11 pass breakups (both career highs). Nearly halfway through this season, Fletcher has had only two double-digit tackle games and is on pace for 119 tackles, which would be his second-lowest total since he became a starter. He has no interceptions or pass deflections.
“I think Fletcher has lost a step,” Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Redskins and Houston Texans, said in a phone interview. “He’s always been an instinctive guy, but he’s lost some range, so you can’t compensate for a loss of range.”
Fletcher still brings value, Casserly said. “Losing a step, that’s a given. He’s 38. But he’s still a smart player, and he still seems effective as a signal caller and he’s very instinctive,” Casserly said. “He finds the football, and he’s still above the line. Even though he’s lost a step, he’s still a contributor you want on your team. His leadership is important.”
Moss’s role has completely changed in the last two years. In March 2012, Washington signed Garcon from the Indianapolis Colts to a five-year, $42 million deal and tabbed him as its No. 1 receiver. Moss shifted to the slot receiver role last season but still recorded 41 catches for 573 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns.
Things differ drastically this year. Moss has been on the field for only 45 percent of the Redskins’ offensive plays. The team has tried to feature third-year wide receivers Leonard Hankerson and Aldrick Robinson alongside Garcon despite their inconsistencies. Moss has just 19 catches for 234 yards and one touchdown. He had a vintage game with seven catches for 77 yards against Detroit but in the four games since has only four catches.
“Moss isn’t the dynamic player he once was,” Casserly said. “He doesn’t seem to be as fast, and as a smaller player, that probably hurts him some.”
The changes haven’t shaken the confidence of either player.
Fletcher says the diminished numbers don’t reflect a lack of ability. Opposing offenses have put him in more situations in which he must cover the tight end on pass routes, partly in an attempt to get him away from the ball, teammates and opponents say.
“I feel great,” Fletcher said. “I think it just depends on how the game is being played. This past ballgame, we played a lot of man coverage, so I was manning guys up a lot, or if the situation may call where I was just taking on a blocker as we were getting the ball back and doing my job. That’s really how the game goes sometimes, when the defenses are like that. If they’re passing for 400 yards on you, there aren’t going to be a lot of tackles for you unless it’s your guy catching the ball. But I feel good physically. I think I’m still playing decent football.”
The next nine games will prove telling for Fletcher. Last year, he got off to a slow start, then recaptured his dominant form, spurring the defense to its best efforts of the year during a seven-game winning streak. Can he do it again? He believes so.
“It’s just being in the right position to make plays,” said Fletcher, who Sunday will play in his 248th straight game, an NFL record for a defensive player. “And again, it just depends on the opponent we’re facing, what the game plan is and what play is called. That also factors into if you’re able to make a play or not.”
Moss partially blames his decreased production on limited opportunities. The last three games serve as a snapshot of his season as a whole. He was in on 50 plays against Dallas three weeks ago, recording two catches for 42 yards, but played only 16 snaps the following week and then 31 against Denver (two catches for 20 yards).
“You have to be honest with yourself. I’m a slot receiver,” Moss said. “Last year, Pierre was hurt. Fred [Davis] was hurt. You have to be realistic. People get caught up with what I did last year, but that’s one of the reasons why I don’t get psyched up about that stuff. When Pierre got back healthy, you seen my stuff — it wasn’t like it was early in the season. I’m not stupid. I see how this game is. I’m going to be here when they need me, and when they need me, I’ll be ready.”
Moss acknowledges some missed opportunities. In each of the last three games, untimely drops have plagued him, including one in the end zone against Denver. And he concedes the diminished opportunities likely serve as a sign his coaches believe he has lost a step. He disagrees and welcomes the chance to prove them wrong, though he will not make demands.
“What can you do about it? You gonna kick and fuss?” he said. “When things are not in your control, it’s only so much you can do. I’ve learned over and over in my life, if you can’t control things, you can’t sit and pout about it. You’ve got to do your job, and when opportunity comes, be pleased with your job because you never know. You could be out there not doing your job, and your time comes and you’re not ready. You just try to stay focused, man.”
Former Redskins running back and return man Brian Mitchell believes Moss still has plenty left to offer his team and simply needs the opportunity.
“I think Santana, if given the opportunity to be out there more consistent, can be very effective,” Mitchell said. “If I’m him, I’m asking for the damn football. The people they’re trying to get involved in the game — Aldrick and Hank — they’re still not better than him at this point. . . .Mike [Shanahan] always says, ‘I’m going with the guy that gives us the best chance of winning.’ Then why all of a sudden this year are you not giving him the opportunity?”
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said part of the challenge of featuring both Moss and Reed at the same time stems from the fact that his tight end and slot receiver run similar routes in his scheme. Kyle Shanahan has gone with three-receiver sets primarily on third downs this season rather than first and second, and that also has led to diminished chances for Moss. So while he expresses confidence in Moss’s abilities, game situations dictate who is on the field much of the time.
“You never know who is going to get the ball,” the offensive coordinator said. “You always try to get it to the guys in the best situation, but it is pretty random. There’s no exact way to look at it.”
As the losses pile up and the clock keeps ticking, both Fletcher and Moss say they remain positive and focused. But they would be lying if they said the losses don’t wear on them, particularly in this late stage of their careers.
Fletcher sits up late Sunday nights into Monday mornings, replaying plays in his mind and asking what he could have done differently to change the outcome. He admits stewing some more on Mondays and Tuesdays, and then he shifts his focus to the next opponent by Wednesday when practices resume.
Both players are in the final year of their contracts, and neither has discussed his future publicly. For now, both continue to focus on the present and ignore the tap of time’s finger on their shoulders.
“I firmly believe we can win with this team, this year, and I’m trying to do my part,” Fletcher said. “That’s how we have to approach it.”