- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

London Fletcher made more tackles than any NFL player the past five years. He led all linebackers in interceptions in 2006. He has never missed a game during his nine seasons. But the newest Washington Redskin knows there’s still skepticism about him being just 5-foot-10.

“That’s the first thing that people mention, but I’m a proven player,” said Fletcher, who spent the last four seasons in Buffalo. “I’ve started two Super Bowls. The last time I checked, the holes were open [side to side] not [up and down]. If I was 6-1, would that make me a better player?”

After giving the 31-year-old Fletcher a five-year, $25 million contract including a $10.5 million signing bonus, the Redskins obviously don’t think so. He was the first player they targeted in free agency. Coach Joe Gibbs and assistants Gregg Williams, Jerry Gray, Danny Smith and Al Saunders, all of whom had worked for teams for which Fletcher played, all got on the phone with him as soon as the signing period began at 12:01 AM Friday.

“We know a lot about London,” Gibbs said. “It wasn’t a guessing game for us. Obviously, he knows the scheme. He fits great with our group of guys. He takes every snap in practice. He runs sideline to sideline. He plays every down.”

The attraction was mutual.

“This was the place I wanted to be,” Fletcher said. “[My familiarity with the scheme] was one of the determining factors besides that we reached an agreement on a contract. There was no need for me to take any other visits. Coach [Gibbs] was calling me at midnight [to say], ‘We want to get you in here.’ The last call was from Gregg at 3 a.m. to say, ‘We’ll be in at 9 a.m. to get you.’ Gregg said, ‘Don’t forget to bring a suit. I guarantee you, you’ll need a suit [for the press conference].’ ”

After ranking in the top 10 on defense in their first two years in assistant head coach Williams’ scheme, the Redskins sank to 31st last season. Gibbs said, “[As far as] we went down, but it’s still a short trip back” and Fletcher believes he can make a difference.

“The prior two seasons, they were very stout against the run, created a lot of turnovers,” Fletcher said. “They want me to be one of the leaders of the team, the quarterback of the defense, somebody that looks into the eyes of the other 10 men on that field. When I make a call, exude confidence in the call … knowing that this situation, we’re going to get job done. On key third downs, we’re going to get the stops. On fourth downs, we’re going to get the stops. They want me to be a leader, do what I’ve done the past nine years, make plays. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have the talent.”

And the drive. Fletcher has overcome the rape and murder of his sister when he was 12, his mother’s drug addiction and her death last year days before his wedding. He also played only one year of high school football, wound up at Division III John Carroll after beginning his college career as a basketball point guard at St. Francis (Pa.) and wasn’t chosen in the 1998 NFL draft.

Surviving all that adversity helped him decide to become a minister, a goal he hopes to accomplish by 2009. In the meantime, Fletcher wants to help restore the Redskins to their former glory, just as he did for the Rams for whom he started Super Bowls in two of his first three years as a regular.

Fletcher takes the job held the past two seasons by Lemar Marshall, who took over when Antonio Pierce left for the New York Giants in March 2005. The Redskins believe that Marshall belongs on the weak side where he started in 2004 and where he’ll battle 2006 rookie Rocky McIntosh to start this season.

Marshall took Fletcher’s arrival in stride.

“After talking to some of the coaches after the season ended, I pretty much knew they wanted to get a middle linebacker,” said Marshall, who was second on the team in tackles last season but didn’t play as well as he had in leading the team in 2005. “My two years in the middle, there was some good and some bad. If the coaches feel I’m better at the [weakside], that’s their decision. I’ve heard Rocky and I will compete. May the best man win and do a great job.”

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