1. I don’t know if London Fletcher is going to retire or not. Teammates lean toward him returning, but that’s just a guess on their part based on their belief that he can still play at a certain level. And Fletcher told the NFL Network, in essence, that if he’s healthy he’ll likely return. But Redskins coach Mike Shanahan told the Redskins network this:
“I really don’t know. One thing you have to do is, you’ve got to have a mindset that there’s no way you’re going to retire. Because if you’re thinking about retirement, you’re not really sure – at least when I look at my previous years, and you look back at guys – if you’re thinking about retiring, you’re probably already retired.
“London’s the type of guy that you don’t even want to ask him a question. Because his mindset, he’s a warrior, how hard he’s played and what he’s done for this organization. But all those things, you’ve got to have a game plan for if he does come back, if he doesn’t come back. You’re taking a look at your financial responsibilities, if you do have the hit that we may take. You just don’t know. So we’ve got a game plan for all scenarios, but you always hope that your great players keep on playing at a high level.”
That sounds like a coach prepping for life after Fletcher. Keep in mind that Fletcher says he’s thought about retirement the past few seasons, though it was never a public subject. Heck, last year he was looking for one last payday. One thing I wonder: Fletcher said he wanted to see this program get turned around and leave it in good hands. He could make the case that his mission was accomplished. I also remember going through the retirement saga with Darrell Green once upon a time. The tough part for him was mustering up the energy to prepare at a certain level. Fletcher would be 38 coming off an injury-filled season. One thing we know: It’s tougher to recover from injuries when you’re older; and age is an undefeated opponent.
2. Fletcher’s base salary this season is $5.5 million. That’s more than he’ll make on TV, which he’s clearly auditioning for this offseason — and he should; set yourself up for the future. But one person who has worked with Fletcher in the past said he wouldn’t have been surprised if Fletcher had wanted to retire a year or two ago, but returned because the Redskins kept paying him (as they should have done). Could the Redskins release him and sign him back at a lower salary? I have a hard time seeing that one. It’s never good to have a strong leader and locker room presence like Fletcher take a pay cut and then bring him back. Never. Unless of course it’s his idea. I checked with a former longtime player about whether or not something like this would ever happen and the response was, “No way.” I did not include all the exclamation points he used. Guys like Fletcher have a ton of pride; play at the current salary or retire.
3. If Fletcher is going to retire it would be helpful to let the Redskins know before the start of free agency on March 12. If he doesn’t let them know and Lorenzo Alexander somehow gets away then they lost one alternative to him. I’ve talked to players who think Keenan Robinson could step in and do well. He impressed teammates with what he did this season. As one said, “He can play some ball.” But even with Robinson, there’s a learning curve; he’ll only be in his second season and his rookie year was cut short. That’s where Alexander would help. They played together last season when Fletcher had to miss games and because of Alexander’s versatility coaches could be creative. Offenses, at times, had trouble deciding which one was the Mike linebacker — which every offensive line needs to determine. The Redskins want Alexander to return, but right now the numbers haven’t matched (I wonder how Fletcher’s situation affects this; if Alexander has to play an increased role it obviously means more money. They’ll try and keep him regardless of what Fletcher does). But they’ll need him back if Fletcher leaves. If Robinson is the future at this spot, Alexander if nothing else can ease the transition in the present. His strength is going forward; Robinson has the ability to drop into coverage. If Fletcher retires, it would free the Redskins up to pursue what is likely their main target in free agency: secondary help.
4. Yes, they would lose something if Fletcher leaves in terms of knowledge and leadership. Last summer I wanted to talk to him about the zone read option and defending it. This came at a time when we had limited access to assistant coaches. Fletcher was clearly tired, but when I told him I wanted to talk to him because he was as much like an assistant as anyone, he chuckled. There’s no doubt Fletcher agreed. Nobody else on the defense can match his intangibles. That’s not a knock on them as much as it’s the reality of Fletcher. He’s an intense competitor even in training camp practices; it’s clear he wants to win when facing the offense in two-minute drills and the like.
5. I was talking to a longtime coach early last season and asked him when he could see a linebacker’s age/injuries catching up with him. And he relayed what a former NFL linebacker coach had told him: When a player is able to get to the hole, but not finish the tackle. The combo of age and injuries sap an older player of his power when he arrives in the hole. Did that happen to Fletcher last season? Well, early on he missed more tackles in the hole than we’re accustomed to seeing (though the coaches were pleased with his play during this period; it was also the second straight year his second half of the season was better than his first). But the way he finished suggested he still had more left in him, if he desires to return. Keep in mind, too, that it’s not as if his replacement won’t make mistakes, especially if it’s a young guy. It’ll just be different mistakes minus the intangibles. Fortunately for Washington it’ll have an experienced front seven even if Fletcher retires.
Yeah, teams threw at him in coverage but he was still their best coverage linebacker. For him it was mostly about size, trying to cover tight ends eight inches taller. It wasn’t typically a case of guys running away from him. Perry Riley has improved in coverage, but is still a liability in zone. So Fletcher still offers them something. But Fletcher had to battle hard over the final month or so because of his ankle injury; considering how little he was able to practice it must have been rather painful. Yet he still helped — and then some. He also called it the second most fun he’d had in his career. Not a bad way to go out. That is, if he wants.