Now 38 years old and in his 16th season in the NFL, Fletcher is the active leader in consecutive games played at 243. When he steps onto the field Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, Fletcher will pass former linebacker Bill Romanowski for the longest such streak by a defensive player since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
It will be an astonishing accomplishment in a brutal sport, no less impressive given Fletcher’s position at middle linebacker. Players in their late 30s at that spot are rare. But Fletcher has always prided himself on his durability. Playing virtually every snap always mattered to him.
That has finally changed this season. With reserve linebacker Nick Barnett, a longtime starter at middle linebacker in Green Bay, finally healthy and comfortable in Washington’s defensive system, Fletcher says he will take himself out of games when he sees the need.
That happened for the first time Sunday in a 27-20 loss to the Detroit Lions at FedEx Field. Fletcher left the field for a play on Detroit’s second drive of the game and was off for three more plays on its third drive. That’s not a move he would have made a few years ago. It’s one that is necessary now.
“I still can [play full time],” Fletcher said. “But I’m not 24, either. And even young guys, no matter how old you are, if you want to play 100 miles an hour to the football, you’re not going to be able to go at that mindset for 60 minutes. It’s impossible to do.”
Fletcher was on the field for 59 of Washington’s 67 defensive snaps (88 percent) on Sunday. That’s not much of a break. But every little bit helps, especially as teams in the copycat NFL use more no-huddle and hurry-up tactics against the Redskins. That blueprint was Philadelphia’s in the season opener on Sept. 9. The Eagles ran an astonishing 80 plays — 53 of them in the first half.
Fletcher admitted this week that he should not have stayed on the field so much in that contest. He was on for all 80 snaps against the Eagles and the next week against Green Bay he was on again for all 72 snaps. He didn’t play up to his normal standard, so entering the Detroit game, Fletcher told Barnett to be ready to take over for him. Barnett had already received increased repetitions during practice that week anyway.
“The idea when I came here was to go in and rotate and let [Fletcher] go out a little bit so he can come back fresh” said Barnett, a 10-year veteran who signed a one-year contract with Washington on Aug. 1. “I’m just here to spell him. And if that role increases or the number of plays increases, then I’ll be ready for it.”
Redskins coaches this week, including Mike Shanahan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, agreed with that approach. It appeared to work. Fletcher finished with four solo tackles and recorded a sack on the opening play of the game against the Lions. After leaving the game early in the first quarter, Fletcher quickly returned to the field and recorded a tackle for loss. He also said he still felt strong in the fourth quarter, too.
“Let me tell you this — London played his butt off,” Haslett said. “He had 12 [combined] tackles, flying around. I thought he was he outstanding. I thought it was his best game he’s played this year.”
And that’s the whole point of this experiment. Fletcher began the Detroit game running all over the place taking on blockers. But once the Lions started going no-huddle and pushing the pace, he recognized it and exited for Barnett. There was no need to exhaust himself that early in the game if his goal was to be around the football, to be a force, whenever he was on the field.
It’s a gambit likely to continue throughout the season as long as Barnett remains healthy coming off last year’s right knee injury.
“If it helps us try to win a ballgame, that’s something I’ve got to do,” Fletcher said. “They’re not giving out trophies for playing all the snaps. We’re judged on wins and losses.”