His teammates stand and watch practice because of swollen knees, strained calves and sore hamstrings, but Washington Redskins linebacker Matt Sinclair doesn’t allow himself the luxury of resting his separated shoulder. Not after his parents made him wait until he was a high school sophomore to play tackle football and not after being cut by three teams before he finally got into an NFL game in his third season as a pro last fall.
“A guy in my situation can’t afford to be missing time,” Sinclair said after putting even more stress on his shoulder by signing autographs long after his teammates had headed to the locker room. “To me, all that injury stuff is mental. Unless a bone’s sticking out of my skin, I’ll be out there. The first time you step on the field for training camp is going to be the last time you’re healthy the rest of the year anyway. A hot shower after practice loosens up the shoulder. It’ll be all right.”
For a guy who came to camp in 2007 at just about the bottom of the depth chart, Sinclair has done more than all right during the last year. He earned a practice squad spot last September. Three months later, he was promoted to the active roster.
The former three-year starter at Illinois made his debut by tackling record-setting return man Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears on the opening kickoff. It was probably a coincidence, but Washington won all four regular-season games in which Sinclair played.
Because the Redskins didn’t re-sign veteran Randall Godfrey and haven’t added a linebacker of consequence, Sinclair actually is expected to make the team this summer. His main competition for the sixth and final linebacker job, Rian Wallace, is out 10 to 14 days with a broken hand. Danny Verdun-Wheeler, a practice squad pickup in December, and rookie free agent Curtis Gatewood are true long shots.
“It’s nice to come into a training camp and have coaches expect something from you,” Sinclair said. “In the past, anything I did was a plus because they didn’t expect anything. This year, the coaches told me they wanted me to be a part of the team and were expecting this, that and the other. That meant a lot. I feel like part of the team, not just another body. But you still have to capitalize on whatever opportunity they give you.”
Sinclair did that on the first day of camp, intercepting two passes and returning them for touchdowns. But that strong start didn’t take him off the bubble. London Fletcher, Marcus Washington and Rocky McIntosh will start. Khary Campbell is the top special teams tackler. H.B. Blades showed flashes as a draft pick in 2007. Then there’s the overachieving Sinclair.
“Matt’s biggest thing is being consistent with his technique day-in and day-out,” said linebacker coach Kirk Olivadotti, adding he was unaware of Sinclair’s shoulder injury until being interviewed. “Matt’s gift is he’s willing to put in all the time necessary to make himself as good as he can be.”
There’s no disputing that. Washington’s equipment staff calls the 26-year-old Sinclair “Late Night” because of all the hours he works. On top of the two-a-day practices and the weight room and classroom sessions during camp, Sinclair also spends half an hour each day lying on the floor, stretching a rope he loops over his feet and his shoulders.
“After playing almost year-round [including time with NFL Europa in the springs of 2006 and 2007], I learned that taking care of your body is the No. 1 priority,” Sinclair said. “Even in the offseason, I’m here until 4 in the afternoon. But what else am I going to do? Go home and watch TV?”
Fletcher can relate to Sinclair’s situation, having beaten the odds as a rookie free agent in 1998. He gave an autograph to St. Louis native Sinclair at Rams training camp that year.
“One thing coaches love is effort, and that’s one of the things you can control,” Fletcher said. “Matt gives everything he has each and every day. They can coach you up on the rest of it. Matt didn’t have a chance to work with us in the offseason last year because he was over in Europe, so he came to training camp behind the eight ball. This year knowing the defense has allowed Matt to play a lot better.”