When Eric Fisher was a late scratch from the Chiefs starting lineup for their opener at Houston in September, it was widely perceived that he had come down with the J.J. Watt flu — a reluctance to go up against the menacing Texans’ defensive end.
Now, there are a many ways to try to reconcile what actually was happening with Fisher, who unquestionably was dealing with an ankle injury and arguably would have been well-advised not to play at less than the best version of himself — for his own good and that of the team.
But this being the confounding Fisher, off to a slogging start in his career magnified by being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and the first choice of the John Dorsey-Andy Reid regime …
And this being the macho NFL, where anything less than sacrificing your body makes you a wimp …
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Fisher’s manhood essentially was called into question, largely through a whisper campaign of unnamed sources that took full voice from former Chiefs defensive lineman Shaun Smith, who remains connected in the locker room. He took to Twitter to ridicule Fisher, calling him a “chump” and saying he was “scared of” Watt.
All of which was prologue to at least a symbolically transformative moment last Saturday for Fisher, who has matured and improved all season as the Chiefs prepare to play Saturday at New England in an AFC divisional playoff game.
The striking snapshot from a 30-0 victory marked by Fisher and friends muzzling Watt to just one tackle (Watt had nine overall and six for loss in the opener) took place in the third quarter.
Fisher first fended off the rush of Watt, who was constrained by a groin injury that later would require surgery.
And when Watt went down, Fisher made sure he stayed there with an emphatic shove to the head.
It’s in the eye of the beholder whether that was gratuitous or merely following through.
But Fisher couldn’t know what was happening behind him, and it’s certainly true that a play is never over until it’s whistled dead with the relentless Watt on the field.
“All I know was I had to finish the play,” he said after the game.
It’s what happened after that, though, that speaks to an emerging new Fisher.
As a camera at NRG Stadium zoomed in on Fisher and provoked vigorous booing, the same guy some who had been portrayed as scared, the same guy who seemed to have been self-conscious because of his draft status and the scrutiny that comes with it, basked in the moment.
Suddenly, Fisher was looking all around him, nodding his head and essentially saying, “Bring it on.”
The bold gesture was something more than just hollow showboating to his offensive linemates.
Jeff Allen smiled and said, “I liked it.”
Jah Reid said it was “awesome” and “got us all fired up.”
“We were feeding off it; it actually got us pretty stoked up front,” Donald Stephenson said. “We all picked it up a notch. The stadium hates it, their sidelines weren’t too happy about it. But the type of guys we are, it just gave us a little more fuel.”
Which was plenty needed immediately after that: The Chiefs were clutching a seemingly tenuous 13-0 lead and facing third and 3, and receiver Jeremy Maclin had left the game for good with an ankle injury.
A few plays later, they completed the 94-yard drive with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith to Chris Conley that seemed to seal the outcome.
But Fisher’s brashness stood for something more broad to other observers, something about his putting any tentativeness behind him and asserting himself far more.
“You flip (the image) almost, right?” Smith said, smiling. “It says a lot about where he is to see him embrace that.”
To offensive coordinator Doug Pederson, it punctuated his starting to come of age even as he retains plenty of room for growth.
“I think for ‘Fish’ it (was) a little bit of a sign of him really having confidence in his own ability; he’s comfortable with how he’s playing now …,” Pederson said. “It’s a stepping stone for him.
“It’s a milestone, for any young player, particularly an offensive lineman who’s been battered for three years, to finally kind of get over that hurdle.”
The hurdles, and questions, have been numerous almost from the time Fisher arrived from Central Michigan.
His first day of camp at St. Joseph was conducted in front of more people than had been in the stands for some of his games.
“That all kind of like hit him in the face when he first got here,” Stephenson said.
Having “all eyes on him,” as Andy Reid put it, was part of that.
And no one knows better than Smith the attached weight of expectations that come with being made the overall No. 1 pick, which Smith was by the 49ers in 2005.
“You know it, and try to talk to him about it, but you’ve just got to work through it on your own and we all work through things differently,” Smith said. “It’s hard to put into words the anxiety and pressure you put on yourself with something like that, and you could see it.”
Fisher struggled mightily that season.
It was a matter of conjecture how much of that was because he might not be good enough, how much because of the adjustment (including playing right tackle instead of left) and how much because of injuries (thumb, shoulder, concussion and groin) that resulted in two off-season surgeries.
When he continued to sputter in his second year, Reid stressed that Fisher hadn’t had a full offseason to get stronger because of the shoulder surgery.
True as it might have been, nothing was inspiring a lot of faith that he was sure to ultimately flourish.
The accumulated skepticism probably played a part in the buzz about him in Week 1.
It surely played a part in what’s happened since.
Fisher, Pederson believes, “took that to heart” as the season progressed.
It definitely was on his mind entering the Texans game.
“I had a little chip on my shoulder coming into this week,” he said afterward, alluding to what was widely written then and adding, “But (I) came back to get the job done. …
“I dealt with a lot on that. Having a chance to play this week, I wasn’t going to let that go.”
And now maybe the stigma can be let go, too.
Not only just in the sense that he has improved “drastically” this season, as Pederson said.
And not just because he is “not even in the same universe” as he was his rookie year, Smith said.
But because the questions that surfaced after the season opener apparently have been put to rest.
“I wouldn’t say he’s becoming more tough; he’s always been tough,” Allen said. “As you grow and you get older, you play fast and that comes along with it.”
Reflecting on the murmurs at the start of the season, Stephenson smiled and said, “Oh, man, I forgot about that.”