- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2011

Stand close enough to London Fletcher, and you’ll notice the white hairs streaking his chin. That’s not what you expect to see on the NFL’s leading tackler.

“A lot more people get caught up in my age than I do,” Fletcher said at his Redskins Park locker Wednesday. “At the end of the day, I’m going to be judged the same way these 20-some-year-olds are going to be judged. They’re not going to say, ‘For a 36-year-old you’re playing well.’ They’re going to say, ‘He’s playing well just like everybody else.’ “

The judges — er, Pro Bowl voters — will announce their verdict Tuesday, and there’s a strong chance Fletcher will be included. The Washington Redskins‘ inside linebacker has been to the NFL’s annual all-star game each of the past two seasons as an alternate.

That tag might not apply this time. His 146 tackles are the most in the NFL and 18 more than the next-highest NFC total. He’s 12 tackles away from establishing a career high. “Yeah, it would [be nice] to finally say my peers and the fans and the coaches finally get it,” Fletcher acknowledged.

Those who spend Christmas Eve at FedEx Field, though, might want to savor Fletcher’s tenacity and passion. Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings — his 223rd consecutive game — might be his final home appearance as a Redskin.

After five seasons with the team, his contract is scheduled to expire. The organization will have to decide the parameters of a contract to offer the NFL’s leading tackler, who will turn 37 next May.

The Redskins‘ defensive front seven have established themselves as the team’s greatest strength, and Fletcher is the heartbeat of that group, coaches say. The team upgraded its talent during the offseason by signing nose tackle Barry Cofield and defensive end Stephen Bowen, and by drafting outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan with the 16th-overall pick. Fletcher has benefited from the additions to the line because he’s free from blockers more often.

Not only is Fletcher a captain, but he’s also responsible on each play for setting the front seven’s alignment with calls based on the offense’s formation.

Can the organization truly afford to let go the central force of its significantly improved defense?

“Obviously, that’s going to be up to management and him,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “But, from my perspective, I think he’s the perfect guy to help to keep building this defense. He’s got a lot of time left in him. We just have to take care of him and make sure that we don’t wear him out.”

Coach Mike Shanahan, who has final say on personnel decisions, values players who prepare for games as extensively as Fletcher does, and he believes such habits extend players’ careers.

“You just know the way a guy plays and, when a guy prepares that way, he’s got a chance to keep that level up,” Shanahan said. “I’ve been around a lot of guys that had success after four or five years and they start going to banquets, they start going on vacations. All of a sudden, two offseasons, three offseasons, they’re not in the league anymore and they were in the Pro Bowl.”

Fletcher’s wisdom on the subject seems to match his age. Near the end of his 14th NFL season, he knows how cruel the business of the sport can be.

Asked if he believes he’ll be back in Washington next season, Fletcher smiled.

“I’ve got faith in two things,” he said. “I have faith in Christ, and I’ve got faith in me. Beyond that, I have faith in nothing else. I’ll be standing somewhere.”

Redskins fans hoping Fletcher will return can take comfort in the fact he’s not necessarily looking to jump ship to a contender. His experience in St. Louis at the start of his career ingrained that in him.

After he made the Rams’ roster as an undrafted free agent in 1998, the team went 4-12. The following season, St. Louis went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl. Fletcher learned you can’t judge which teams are going to contend.

He is pragmatic about the situation, though. At his age, it’s his last chance for a big contract.

“I really don’t know what their thinking is,” Fletcher said. “That’s really up to them. If they appreciate the way I go about doing things, then they’ll show me.”

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