Redskins safety Ryan Clark eyed the group of former players who showed up to watch a minicamp practice this week and smiled.
By his rough count, Clark, now 34 and back with Washington for the first time since 2005 after signing as a free agent this spring, had played with a quarter of the ex-Redskins who attended. Most of those men have long since finished their football careers. Clark is still going with no plans to stop.
“I guess that tells you a little bit about when I was here,” Clark joked after a minicamp practice on Wednesday. “But for me, it’s good. There are a lot of places I could have went where it would have been like starting over. This really isn’t. I have a foundation here. I know people here. I also know the fanbase. I know what it is to be a member of this team. … It was a good choice.”
Safety was a problem area for Washington throughout last year’s miserable 3-13 campaign. It had to be addressed. And while Clark’s age makes him a short-term answer, coaches and teammates say he still brings value at a position of need. On a defense that lost its unquestioned leader, linebacker London Fletcher, to retirement, Clark could help fill that void.
“I love a guy like Ryan to be around just for what our defense was missing,” said wide receiver Santana Moss, who played with Clark in Washington in 2005. “I think with London leaving, Ryan is the next best guy to be out there, to be able to listen to and to be able to talk to these young guys.”
Moss remembers Clark, undrafted out of LSU before catching on with the New York Giants in 2002, calling out plays and communicating with defensive teammates — veterans whose heads would swivel to see if this unheralded youngster knew what he was doing. He usually did.
Clark parlayed his tenure with Washington into eight seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where that defense ranked in the top five in the NFL in yards allowed per game for six years in a row and led the league four times.
Clark started 109 of 111 games with the Steelers, played alongside strong safety Troy Polamalu and went to two Super Bowls, winning one of them. In 2011 he was named to the Pro Bowl.
In Washington, the mercurial Brandon Meriweather is what passed for a steady veteran last season. Given his checkered disciplinary history, that didn’t amount to much. Otherwise at safety, the Redskins have Tanard Jackson, stained by multiple drug suspensions and a complete question mark in his return to the NFL; the talented Phillip Thomas, who missed his entire rookie year with a Lisfranc injury to his left foot; and Bacarri Rambo, who was overwhelmed as a rookie last season.
“You have to have great communication skills,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “And we’ll give [Clark] some leeway. When we game plan we’ll have those guys have some checks and do some different things because, obviously, he can handle it. He did some [Wednesday]. That’s a good addition to our football team.”
Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III laughed when asked about Clark. In one of their first conversations as teammates, the two men recalled a game at Pittsburgh in 2012 when Griffin went out for a pass, was whistled for a pass interference penalty and was promptly drilled with a helmet-to-helmet hit by Clark. It wasn’t funny at the time, though, and Griffin joked that play was quickly deleted from the team’s playbook.
“I think what everyone points to is leadership,” Griffin said. “But you just can’t come in and start talking and have people listen to you no matter what your pedigree is. I think [Clark] has done a good job coming in and showing it, working hard and then making plays out on the field. … We’re glad to have him.”
But leadership is an intangible. Clark is determined to show that a disappointing 2013 season, when Pittsburgh tumbled to 13th in yards allowed and missed the playoffs for a second consecutive year, wasn’t indicative of age catching up to him.
Clark started all 16 games for the Steelers and had two interceptions. But his play suffered compared to 2012, which he considers the finest season of his career. He is sure that level isn’t beyond him yet.
“They call me ‘old guy’ around here. Every now and then, the younger guys point to my age,” Clark said. “And I tell them ‘I’m still good enough to be running around with you.’ So either they gotta get better or eventually I gotta be 40.”