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After 16 NFL seasons, London Fletcher’s work is done
London Fletcher has pondered retirement each of the last two winters, eventually determining on each occasion that he still has the desire to play another season.
This time, the decision has seemingly been made. Fletcher announced Wednesday that he is likely to retire following the season, allowing him one last game at FedEx Field on Sunday with the Washington Redskins set to host the Dallas Cowboys.
“I’ve got to leave at least one percent just in case I change my mind, but it’s really just about having another conversation with my wife,” Fletcher said. “But I just thought with this being the final home game, this being Dallas Cowboys week, an opportunity to go out in a bang, get the fans riled up, say thank you to them and beat the Cowboys — what better way to end it?”
The 38-year-old will, presumably, end his career having played in 256 consecutive games — a streak that is already the longest all-time among defensive players. Undrafted out of John Carroll, a Division III college in suburban Cleveland, Fletcher signed with the St. Louis Rams in 1998 and was the starting middle linebacker a year later, when the team won the Super Bowl.
He signed with the Buffalo Bills in 2002, then joined the Redskins in 2007 on a five-year, $25 million contract. Facing the prospect of retirement in early 2012, Fletcher instead signed what was essentially a two-year, $10.75 million contract, all but ensuring he’d end his career in Washington.
“I spent 19 years in the NFL, and he’s on what I would call my all-Navy SEAL team,” Dick Vermeil, the Rams’ coach when Fletcher entered the league, said by telephone Wednesday afternoon. “The National Football League turns out unbelievable people, but I don’t know how many who make it could end up being a Navy SEAL. He’s a warrior. I can picture him excelling at things way beyond NFL football — way beyond NFL football.”
Statistically, Fletcher’s most productive seasons were his most recent. He led all players with 166 tackles in 2011 and intercepted a career-high five passes last season, and his only four Pro Bowl appearances have come in the last four years.
His performance had started to slip this season and, for the first time, the player who has annually led his team in tackles is on the verge of failing to do so. Perry Riley, the Redskins‘ other inside linebacker, has 103; Fletcher’s 98 are on pace to be lower than the 116 he had in 2001, the first year the NFL officially tracked the stat.
“It’s one of those things you don’t want to think about, but you realize it has to happen at some time,” Riley said. “I’ve been here with him for four years. He’s taught me pretty much everything there is to know. I feel like I’ll be ready [to replace him] when the time comes, but it’s one of those things you don’t want to think about.”
One of the team’s defensive captains, Fletcher has long been revered in the locker room for his leadership. It wasn’t a coincidence that the Redskins assigned Robert Griffin III a stall next to Fletcher’s when the quarterback was drafted prior to last season.
“There’s many different ways to be a leader, and you can learn that from a guy like him,” Griffin said. “He’s always more reserved. Obviously, you guys see him giving pregame speeches and stuff like that, but he’s a more reserved, rough on the edges, focused guy that comes to work every day ready to go, no matter what’s going on — no matter what’s going on outside. He comes in this building, shuts everything down and gets focused on football.”
Fletcher has played through injury on several occasions, missing an entire week of practice at times last season because of a high left ankle sprain that eventually required surgery. He missed part of the Redskins‘ game against the New York Giants on Dec. 1 with a sprained left ankle, but has otherwise been healthy this season.
“I’ve never been around a guy quite like London,” said coach Mike Shanahan. “They way he prepares for every game is like he’s preparing for a Super Bowl. His leadership is unquestioned.”
It seems likely that Fletcher will pursue broadcasting following his retirement, considering he has made occasional appearances on ESPN and CBS when possible in recent years. Former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, who hosts an afternoon radio program on team-owned ESPN 980, said Fletcher would enjoy that route.
“I mean, he experienced everything you want to experience as a player,” Cooley said. “There’s not one experience that you say London didn’t achieve or get to have, so the first experience out as a player, he’s gonna say, ‘This is the best year of my life.’ He’s gonna love it.”
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