RICHMOND, Va. — Ryan Clark has been a showman, entertainer, spokesman, pontificator, critic, leader, mentor and fashionista — and that’s just from one week of Washington Redskins training camp.
The crowd at camp has quickly warmed to the most interactive new member of the team. And on the second play of an 11-on-11 drill, the veteran free safety was at it again.
DeSean Jackson caught a screen and maneuvered around defenders as if they were pylons. Clark, a former LSU standout, was one of the last to arrive as Jackson was chased out of bounds after a gain of 10 yards or so.
“C’mon, Ryan!” yelled a fan, chastising the defense.
Clark put it hands on his hips and appeared indignant as he addressed the crowd.
“He was tackled eight times!” Clark said. “Eight times!”
Clark was implying that Jackson would have been tackled if tackling had been allowed on that particular drill. The explanation seemed to satisfy the masses.
Fans had been pining for Clark since the Redskins let him go eight years ago, and there’s no missing him now that he’s back.
“What I can say for those fans who said that they shouldn’t have let me go, I appreciate it,” Clark said. “But the Ryan Clark that’s playing today is 20 times better than the one that left.”
Clark was in Washington in 2004-05, but the Redskins opted not to re-sign him and instead paid big money to Adam Archuleta. Archuleta turned out to be one of the top free agent busts in franchise history, while Clark became a stalwart on the Pittsburgh Steelers defense for eight seasons.
“It didn’t bother me. I moved on. I won a Super Bowl. I’ve been to a Pro Bowl,” Clark said, “so it worked out.”
Now he’s 34, the Steelers didn’t re-sign him, and the Redskins hope he’s got at least one year left in him. They need someone to groom young safeties Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo, as well as a vocal leader on defense in the wake of London Fletcher’s retirement.
As with many veterans in their 30s, Clark’s experience helps trump his declining physical skills. He already has a command over the defense, barking out pre-snap instructions so authoritatively that the coach standing behind him is almost redundant.
“Great student of the game. Great person to be around. Understands the scheme,” Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, a former Saints coach, said. “If anybody on this team besides myself can tell you about the scheme, he’s the guy you want to talk to.”
Another byproduct of a being an old hand: Clark has opinions, and he expresses them.
He’ll dress in full pads even when it’s not required because he feels that shorts are for basketball. He thinks the NFL needs to reconsider how it polices marijuana use because it’s too easy to beat the testing system. Asked on Thursday about the new rules emphasis on defensive contact downfield, he answered: “I think that’s kind of the Seattle Seahawk adjustment, you know what I mean? Nobody likes to see the Sheriff (Peyton Manning) go to the Super Bowl and be embarrassed. He’s their guy.”
He stands out on the field for other reasons.
He wears colorful socks every day. On Thursday, it was orange, black, red and blue in a block pattern. He claims a certain Redskins quarterback does not have the “market cornered on socks.”
“I was doing this before Robert Griffin III got to the NFL. I’ve got a ton of socks with me on this trip,” Clark said. “My kids pick them out for me in the offseason. It keeps a little piece of them out here with me when they’re at home.”
Clark will be No. 25 on the roster during games, but he wears No. 21 during practice to pay tribute to former Redskins safety Sean Taylor, who was killed in 2007. Clark and Taylor were teammates for two seasons, and Clark began wearing No. 21 during practices in recent years with the Steelers.
“Wearing it here is difficult. There are some fans who never met Sean, who say I shouldn’t wear it to practice,” Clark said. “But I understand. That’s why they call them fans. They’re fanatics, and they’re not always right in certain situations, so I don’t mind that. I just wear it and honor him. I know I’m not the player he was, or the athlete he was, but he was my friend, and I want people to remember him.”