Redskins' Fletcher an ageless warrior

ASSOCIATED PRESS Redskins' London Fletcher is entering his 16th NFL season.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Redskins' London Fletcher is entering his 16th NFL season.
Posted: August 06, 2013

RICHMOND, Va. - "Is 38 the new 28?" London Fletcher tweeted in May on the occasion of his 38th birthday.

For most professional athletes, the answer to that question is a definitive no. Thirty-eight is young for an accountant or plumber or hedge-fund manager. But it's ancient for a professional jock.

By the time they reach 38, their skills have eroded, their bodies have betrayed them and their careers are either over or on life-support.

But Fletcher isn't most athletes. The Redskins linebacker is entering his 16th season and still is playing at a remarkably high level.

He was an Associated Press second-team All-Pro selection last season for the second year in a row. Had a team-high 139 tackles and led all NFL linebackers with five interceptions.

"To be able to accomplish that at my age, at this stage of my career, that definitely feels good, because not many guys have been able to do that," he said. "I mean, to think I'm entering my 16th season, it's something I never, ever could've imagined coming into the league out of a Division III school [John Carroll] undrafted."

Nor could the 5-10, 245-pounder ever have imagined that he would manage to answer the bell for every game in those 16 seasons.

When Fletcher takes the field against the Eagles on Sept. 9, it will extend his streak of consecutive regular-season games played to 241. That's the fourth-longest streak by a position player in league history, behind only quarterback Brett Favre (299), defensive end Jim Marshall (282) and linebacker Bill Romanowski (243).

His string of 195 consecutive regular-season starts is the most among active players. He needs just 14 more starts to break Derrick Brooks' consecutive-starts mark for a linebacker.

While some seamheads may disagree, I think Fletcher's consecutive-games-played streak - and that of Favre, Marshall and Romanowki - is more impressive than that of baseball ironman Cal Ripken Jr., who played in 2,632 straight games.

Both Ripken's streak and Fletcher's cover about the same number of years. But it's a lot harder for a 150-tackles-a-year linebacker who is constantly fending off 340-pound guards to stay in one piece than it is a baseball shortstop. Just sayin'.

We're only 2 weeks into training camp, and already, 15 NFL players have suffered season-ending injuries, including two Eagles, Jeremy Maclin and linebacker Jason Phillips.

Yet, for 15 seasons, Fletcher has taken a licking and kept on ticking. Most players who manage to last double-digit seasons in the NFL know their team's orthopedic specialist better than their wife. Offseason trips to a surgeon for a tune-up are as regular as an annual trip to the dentist for a cleaning.

But until he went in for ankle and elbow surgery in March, Fletcher never needed surgery in 15 NFL seasons.

"Genetics," Fletcher said when asked the secret to his amazing durability. "God blessed me with some good genes. A little bit of dumb toughness, too, probably.

"It's a situation where you get up [and] you go to work. You wake up the next day and go to work again. That's really been the approach I've taken.

"The main thing I look at is not wanting to let my teammates down. I want to be out there on the football field with them. If I feel good enough to play, I play."

Fletcher will be the first to admit that physically, he's not the same player he was 10 years ago, or even 5. But he has compensated for any erosion of his physical skills by relying more on his smarts and experience.

"From a physical standpoint, obviously with 15 years of wear and tear, there's a decline that goes with that," the linebacker said. "But mentally, I think I'm as sharp and as in tune with my game as I've ever been. Where the physical part has gone down, I've gained from a mental standpoint an understanding, whether it's a step here to the right or to the left, or just different things that help me still continue to play at a high level."

Fletcher spent much of last season battling an ankle injury. That helps explain the 21 missed tackles he had, the most of any linebacker in the league. That's just 15 fewer than he had the previous four seasons combined.

Some thought Fletcher might retire after last season, particularly after he delivered an emotional address to his teammates following January's 24-14 playoff loss to Seattle that sounded an awful lot like a farewell.

He laid low for a couple of months, had the surgery on his ankle and elbow, then informed the Redskins that was returning for a 16th season.

"It was just a matter of being able to get my body [back] in shape," he said. "I knew I probably was going to need to have surgery on my ankle and elbow. Once I got those taken care of, I was good to go."

If Fletcher had decided to call it quits, it would have been a fairly big blow to the Redskins. They made the playoffs last year primarily on the back of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and their offense.

Their defense, even with an All-Pro season from Fletcher, wasn't very good.

Defensive end Adam Carriker and linebacker Brian Orakpo both missed 14 games with injuries. The Redskins' secondary was bad, giving up 31 touchdown passes, and their pass-rush, without Orakpo and Carriker, was nonexistent (32 sacks).

They had no cap room to improve their defense through free agency, and no first-round pick either. They had traded that away the year before to move up and get RGIII.

Washington used two of its first three '13 draft picks on a corner (David Amerson of North Carolina State) and a safety (Phillip Thomas of Fresno State). But it's too early to tell whether either of them will be ready to contribute against the Eagles in Week 1.

And while Orakpo is back, Carriker reinjured the same quadriceps tendon that KO'd him last year, and is out for 4 to 5 months.

Given Fletcher's importance to the Redskins' defense as both a leader and playmaker, they needed him back.

"The energy London brings to the defense is contagious," nose tackle Barry Cofield said. "It's one thing to be an older guy [and still be] playing. It's another to be an older guy playing and flying around with the intensity he does, and playing at a high level.

"He brings all that to the table."

Fletcher is in the last year of his contract. He said he hasn't given any thought beyond this season.

"In the National Football League, you're always in the last year of your contract," he said. "It's just the nature of the business. I've scratched and clawed my whole career. I'm focused on this season. That's pretty much it. The rest will take care of itself."

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