LANDOVER, Md. -- The play that could have broken the spirit of the Washington Redskins' defense happened with 11:09 left in Sunday's game. Linebacker London Fletcher was just a quarter of a second too late in getting to Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb, who found Larry Fitzgerald deep down the right side of the field for a 73-yard touchdown that stretched Arizona's lead to eight points. After a day of missed opportunities, a game in which they'd dominated time of possession and should have had things well in hand, the Redskins were staring at the strong possibility that they'd let one get away.
"There was no panic on our sidelines," Fletcher said after a 22-21 victory that pushed the Redskins two games over .500 for the first time since 2008. "We were disappointed to give up the touchdown, of course, but I was really stressing to the guys that there was a lot of football left to be played."
The Redskins still had a lot going for them. They knew they'd been stopping the Cardinals pretty much all day. Their offense was marching down the field behind Rex Grossman and Roy Helu for a touchdown drive. And perhaps just as important as either of those two things, they had Fletcher, their inspirational leader, urging them on, as he always does.
"He's obviously still got a lot left in his tank," Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield said. "If a guy who's played as long as he has can still be that fired up and that hungry, it makes you feel bad if you can't be that same way yourself."
There were some who predicted that the Redskins would play this whole season and not win any more games than the two they've already won. Those who did so ignored the improvements Washington made on defense, the benefits the returning players would draw from the season they spent in Jim Haslett's 3-4 defense in 2010, and the veteran leadership the Redskins have on that side of the ball. Fletcher was all over the field Sunday, making five tackles, hitting Kolb twice and collecting an interception. He blitzed out of the Redskins' shifting, confusing defensive fronts as if he'd been playing in them his whole career. The Redskins' linebackers were the stars of the defensive show as the banged-up secondary kept losing players to injury, and Fletcher led them.
"He's the captain of our ship," said reserve cornerback Byron Westbrook, who forced the Chansi Stuckey fumble that sealed the game for Washington in the final minute. "He's vocal. He has a lot of passion. He's always positive and upbeat. Guys want to follow a leader like that."
It was Fletcher who organized those Redskins player workouts during the lockout, scribbling down plays he remembered Haslett running (or trying to run) last season and keeping them on a piece of paper tucked into his back pocket so he could make sure those workouts were directed and productive. It was Fletcher who set the attacking tone the Redskins wanted to set against Kolb and the Cardinals Sunday -- a plan that resulted in three sacks. It was Fletcher who made sure, once the Cardinals started to have success running the ball and then hit that monster pass play, that no one got discouraged.
"When he sees guys in the huddle with their heads down, he's always bringing them back up," linebacker Brian Orakpo said. "That's what I really respect about him. He's always the same."
The great leaders are, and Fletcher-as-leader is a bit of a secret weapon for the Redskins, who aren't as surprised as you are that they're 2-0, by the way.
"We really don't get caught up in what's said about us outside our locker room," Fletcher said, affably, not angrily. "What matters is the way we feel about ourselves."
And in case you're wondering how they feel about themselves ...
"There's just a belief on this team that we're going to win," defensive end Adam Carriker said. "We honestly believe we have one of the best defenses. We believe we're going to win. We believe we're good. And when teams have that belief, they're not going to fold."
And so it was that the Redskins, after Grossman went down the field and cut the lead to two points with a touchdown to Santana Moss, went out and got the three-and-out that put the ball back in their offense's hands. And Westbrook, pressed into service thanks to an injury to starting cornerback Josh Wilson, jumped up from the back end of the depth chart to make the game-clinching play.
"Our young guys, they have resolve," Fletcher said. "And they study."
They probably do so because of the example Fletcher and the other defensive veterans on the Redskins set. And while that may not be the kind of thing that shows up in statistical projections, the belief and confidence it inspires can be hugely valuable to a team, like this one, that's growing and figuring out what it's going to be.
"We know we have a long way to go," Fletcher said. "But the thing we can be happy about is the character of the football team."
He probably won't, but Fletcher should take a bow for that.