Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher is a little more relaxed these days, which speaks to both his growth as a player and status in the locker room. He is a veteran, the second-most experienced starter (by a year) on a young line, and most importantly, he finally seems comfortable, something that was not always a given for the fourth-year pro and former No. 1 overall pick during his first 2 1/2 NFL seasons.
That was reflected, at least somewhat, in his generally terse interactions with media, as he rarely spoke in the locker room and, when he did, offered cliches and little else. Yet these days, you can regularly find the 25-year-old in front of the room on Fridays, staring at his phone and smiling. He laughs easily and made it clear he’s turned the corner, which can be supported by the four-year, $48 million contract extension he signed in August.
But Fisher still has to prove it, and after a solid 2016 debut against the Chargers in the season opener, he’ll have another chance to do it Sunday, when the Chiefs return to NRG Stadium to face the Houston Texans, the team that — for better or worse — has curiously epitomized both the highs and lows of his career.
“I was booed out of there last time,” Fisher said Friday with a hearty laugh.
Last September, Chiefs coach Andy Reid shifted Fisher from left to right tackle in favor of Donald Stephenson before the season opener against the Texans, calling it a decision that gave the Chiefs the best chance to win. Yet, Fisher was a late scratch from the starting lineup. While he was battling a sprained ankle, Reid had said all week that he expected Fisher to play. That, in addition to the fact he was healthy enough to play one offensive snap and six snaps as a protector on the field-goal unit in that game, prompted many to question Fisher’s toughness.
Fisher, however, bounced back and seemed to recapture both the toughness and on-field nastiness that helped him become the No. 1 overall pick. He eventually returned to starting left tackle against the Steelers in mid-October and, in that game, he was flagged for defending a teammate whose leg was twisted in a pile by a defender. And in the Chiefs’ 30-0 AFC Wild Card playoff victory over the Texans, Fisher was caught delivering a shove to an on-his-knees J.J. Watt that caused the injured Watt to leave the game. Houston fans booed Fisher when he was shown on the video board, and Fisher didn’t back down, as he responded with a wave and a keep-it-coming gesture.
It was obvious Fisher enjoyed that moment, as Reid said Fisher and Watt — who went to Fisher’s alma mater (Central Michigan) for a time — know each other. But with the rematch looming, Fisher wisely refused to add more fuel to the fire.
“(I was) in the moment, playoffs, and you know…” he said. “ I’ll just keep my comments to myself, man.”
Fisher, however, does seem willing to entertain the fact that the game — and that moment — has done some positive things for his image, and, in retrospect, might have been a critical point in his development, though he knows you can never take anything for granted in the NFL.
“Well, it seems to have done that with the media,” Fisher said with a chuckle back in April. “But yeah, I thought that was a real fun game for me. It almost seemed like a little bit of a turning point in my career. It was nice to get going — especially in the playoffs, round one. And then (winning) the first playoff game in quite some time around here, I thought that was a big accomplishment.”
Even Texans coach Bill O’Brien agreed with that sentiment.
“I would re-up him too,” O’Brien said of Fisher’s contract extension. “He’s a good player — he’s athletic, tough, I think he’s improved in his years in the league. I think he’s playing like he’s capable of playing.
“A lot of those guys on both sides of the ball, in order to play up front in the game of football, you have to have some of that ‘nastiness.’ You have to play within the rules, but you’ve got to have some of the toughness as well. Eric is a tough player.”
The 6-foot-7, 320-pound Fisher struggled during his transition from the Mid-American Conference to the NFL. As a rookie, he had to adjust to the speed and power of NFL defenders and moving from his college position of left tackle to right tackle. He was banged up, a shoulder injury prevented him from building up his upper body before his rookie and sophomore NFL seasons. When combined with his technique issues in pass protection, Fisher was getting beat more than anyone wanted.
But Fisher started to turn the corner after an important second season in which he played too light, around 300 pounds, and toughed it out through 16 games. He built up his body before the 2015 season, but after he was surprisingly passed by Stephenson, Fisher decided to stop putting so much pressure on himself to live up to his draft status, which essentially freed him to start being himself on the field again.
“When you’re the first overall pick, sometime you feel like I’ve got to be the first overall pick instead of continuing to do what you’re doing — you feel like you’ve got to be somebody else,” Fisher said. “But I think something in the last year clicked, and it was just like, enough. Enough trying to live up to the expectations. Enough trying to meet people’s expectations, you know? I’m just gonna go do what got me here.
“It’s just being confident in what you’re doing, knowing you’re the better guy out there, knowing you’re supposed to be where you’re at. It came with maturing in this league, growing up a little bit and just getting after it.”
“I think you’ve just seen Fish grow here, period, and kind of doing it before our eyes,” Reid said. “He came in from a small college and worked his way up, and it was rough at the beginning and it just kept getting better.”
That’s not to say Fisher doesn’t have more room to grow in technique. He shows good footwork in pass protection, but he still allows defenders to occasionally get into his body because he shoots his hands too late, and Fisher also gives up his inside shoulder on occasion.
“I’m working on that,” he said.
But Fisher’s shift in comfort and confidence is abundantly apparent.
“As a tackle, obviously, you want to cross into that Pro Bowl-caliber player — it’s quite an accomplishment, so obviously I’d love to do that, make the All-Pro team,” Fisher said.
“You watch other guys around the league and you see what they’re doing, the real successful ones — there’s quite a few in the league right now — and try to mimic their game and do what you have to do to make it to the next level.”