With the retirement of Tampa Bay defensive back Ronde Barber this week, the NFL lost one of its consummate professionals and a player who had become a hallmark of consistency throughout his celebrated 16-year career.
Which kind of makes you appreciate London Fletcher all the more, because with Barber's exit there's really no one else whose name has become synonymous with reliability and accountability to the degree of Washington's veteran inside linebacker, who is now preparing for his 16th NFL season.
Barber and Fletcher ended the 2012 season jointly holding the league's reigning iron man streak, with a remarkable 240 consecutive games played. But while Barber's run will now end, Fletcher intends to play on, having not missed a game since debuting as an undrafted Rams rookie out of Division III John Carroll University in Week 1 of 1998.
In a league that inherently hesitates to trust anyone over 30 -- at least not many -- Fletcher is days away from his 38th birthday, and coming off one of his best seasons in years, despite enduring several lingering injuries. Barber's retirement served as a reminder of his own football mortality, but Fletcher is well aware that no player can ultimately win the battle with time and is grateful that Barber had a degree of control over his career's end game.
"You have to be realistic and understand that it's going to end, whether you play three years, or 16, 17 years,'' said Fletcher by phone on Thursday afternoon. "At some point, it's going to be over. With Ronde, I know it's somewhat bittersweet. He's been such a good football player for 16 years and he accomplished so much for the Bucs organization.
"But his role obviously was going to change (to a backup) with the moves they made in free agency, and he had to decide if he wanted to play that role. I knew it was going to be difficult for him, and I'm happy for him to know he went out on his terms, while he could still play if he wanted to. That's what every athlete wants to be able to do, to say I went out on my terms and didn't get kicked out the door. Being a guy who has been linked together with Ronde over the last couple years because of our streaks, I've marveled at his career for quite a while.''
Maybe now it's time, however, we start marveling a little more about Fletcher's career. The guy played and played well through nagging injuries to his left ankle and hamstring last season, and even underwent neurological testing at one point in October due to issues he was having with his balance. At least three or four times his injuries put his game-day status in serious doubt, with missed practices on Friday or even game-day availability decisions having to be made.
But he always answered the bell, just as he always has done, and wound up putting up another Pro Bowl-worthy season, with 139 tackles, three sacks and a career-high five interceptions. With his game clearly re-invigorated by the Redskins' seven-game regular-season-concluding winning streak and surprise NFC East championship, Fletcher was named the NFC's defensive player of the month in December and talked often of 2012 being the most enjoyable season he has had in football since earning a Super Bowl ring as a second-year player on the Cinderella story that was the 1999 St. Louis Rams.
"Last year was as much fun as I've had playing football other than that Super Bowl season in St. Louis, just the way we were able to go out and win seven straight games when we had to, in what people thought was going to be the toughest part of our schedule,'' Fletcher said. "We were in so many close games down the stretch, and in the past we would have found a way to lose those games. But last season, we found a way to win them.''
The Redskins' two spectacular rookies -- quarterback Robert Griffin III and running back Alfred Morris -- had plenty to do with that miraculous second-half run, which produced a 10-6 record and Washington's first NFC East title since 1999. But so too did Fletcher and a Jim Haslett-coordinated Redskins defense that improved and gained confidence and resiliency even in the face of adversity last season. Fletcher, a team leader and the Redskins' defensive captain, saw Washington morph into the club that no one wanted to play from Week 11 on.
"Winning just makes all the work and effort worthwhile,'' he said. "Getting Robert at quarterback, that franchise guy, was obviously a key to us playing better football and winning games. But we had so many guys who came in and played their best football down the stretch during that winning streak. It just all came together.''
As a young player, Fletcher went to the Super Bowl twice in his four-year tenure in St. Louis, including three consecutive playoff trips with the Rams. But he never tasted the postseason in his five seasons in Buffalo (2002-2006) and had only a one-and-done wild-card berth in 2007 to show for his first five seasons in Washington until 2012's success.
Little wonder he wants to keep playing even at 38. With the most exciting era of Redskins football in quite some time underway, who can blame Fletcher for wanting to see where this team's ceiling is, and how far the ride might go with the charismatic and gifted Griffin at quarterback?
"That playoff loss (to Seattle) just made us hungrier and wanting more,'' Fletcher said. "There's more we want to achieve, and our guys understand what we accomplished last year means nothing this season. But there's a tremendous buzz about the team and the organization, because there's a lot of great young talent on this football team. And I think for a number of years to come, the Redskins will be competing for championships.''
Ultimately, Fletcher's body will dictate how much longer his career extends. He is in the final season of the two-year, $10.75 million contract he signed in the spring of 2012, and he said his career has been on a year-to-year basis for at least the past four or five seasons. Last year was the most physically challenging season he has been faced with, and as astounding as it sounds for a veteran linebacker who has absorbed and meted out so much punishment, he just this offseason underwent the first two surgeries of his career, to his left ankle and right elbow. Fletcher said he expects to be rehabbed and ready well in advance of training camp, and the Redskins clearly are counting on him to again be the man in the middle of their defense.
Fletcher doesn't know any other NFL experience, which is why last season's close calls on the injury front were so novel for him. He wasn't even used to missing practices, let alone games, and yet he found a way to be in the lineup for all 17 of Washington's games, even playing at Dallas on Thanksgiving after spraining his ankle in the Redskins' post-bye streak-launching win against the Eagles four days earlier.
"There were a couple games where I was a game-time decision and had to get to the stadium and work out for the coaches and the training staff to prove to them whether I was able to go,'' Fletcher said. "A couple times I wasn't really sure I'd be able to play until I got on the field and was able to make those first runs and do my warmups.''
As with any player who compiles an impressive or historic consecutive-game streak, it has come to largely define Fletcher's long career. He went the first 11 years of his career without ever playing in a Pro Bowl, despite many strong seasons, but has now gone four years in a row. He has always been a steadying if unspectacular presence for the Rams, Bills and Redskins, but his real strength is his reliability and consistency, which is perfectly illustrated by being ready and able to compete in 240 straight games.
The streak, Fletcher admits, has snuck up on him to a degree, coming together as it did by virtue of him going to work each and every day, basically as expected. He might as well have punched a clock for the past 15 years, because he takes a workmanlike attitude to his profession, knowing no other way to approach the game.
"Obviously over the last few years I've become more aware of it, just because it's been talked about a lot more, particularly once I got to 200 (consecutive) games,'' Fletcher said. "But for me, it's really about just going out and trying to be accountable and available week in and week out for my teammates. I want to be out there playing with them.
"I really try not to think too much about it, and I don't try to wear it like a badge of honor. If I can go, I'll go, because I owe that commitment to my teammates. That's just the way it has to work.''
As another season looms, it still works that way for Fletcher. For now, with Barber retired, he stands in the position to scale one particular NFL mountaintop in singular fashion. We could be watching the last chapter of his superb career in 2013. He knows it, but he said he comes to grips with that possibility at the beginning of every season.
"I really want to get through it and see where I'm at,'' Fletcher said, of the upcoming season. "I'll see how I feel and see if I can continue to play at the level I want to play at, and go from there. At some point it's going to end for me. It's not something I'm not prepared for. I understand age catches up to everyone, and the end will be there.''
But it's not there quite yet, and for that the Redskins count themselves fortunate, even as they count once again on Fletcher. Like his streak, his career rolls on, as consistent as ever.