It's impossible not to wonder what the defense might have been with LaVar Arrington healthy enough to play all season. It's impossible not to wonder if a really, really good defense might not have been a great one, a dominant one, a defense that could compensate for a Redskins team so offensively challenged.
The Redskins' defense has ranked among the top three all season without him, and now it's time to start dreaming of what defensive boss Gregg Williams can concoct next year, with Phillip Daniels, with Matt Bowen, with Andre Lott, but most of all with Arrington -- the offense-wrecker, the playmaker. "I did my rehab and said my prayers," said Arrington, who played somewhere between 25 and 30 snaps here against the 49ers after missing 11 games. It had been so long since Arrington had even shown up in film, the 49ers didn't bother to double-team him. "First time since Pee Wee football," Arrington said, "that I haven't had double coverage. I had the opportunity to play like a real football player."
The future is, well, next year for the Washington Redskins. But next year started with a 26-16 victory over the 49ers, and getting Arrington back was more than symbolic. "There are some players in this league," Williams said, "who wouldn't fight to come back after an injury, after being out that long, with the record we have."
If you're wondering why Arrington would come back at all with his team at 4-9 entering the game and out of playoff contention, here's his explanation: "I'm paid to play and I want to earn my pay," he said. "I'm from Pittsburgh and we're blue-collar workers. The mind is a powerful thing. I'd like to believe I'm one of the ultimate team players. And if my teammates are out there fighting, I should be out there fighting, too. I hit the weights like crazy while I was out. I worked as hard as I could to get back. But you can't get into game condition without playing in games. I think being out made me a better player. I had to study and watch. Stuff that didn't make as much sense to me before are clearer now. But it's great to be back out there. The nerves are out the door now."
It begged the question, whether Arrington, if he had it to do all over again, would have tried to come back that week he slipped and fell and doubled his rehabilitation time? "Yes," he said. "I would."
Told of Arrington's answer, Williams said, "That's the mentality this organization needs, and it's the mentality Joe Gibbs wants. It's my job to not abuse LaVar. It's my job to monitor the number of plays he was in on, to monitor his fatigue."
Clearly, Arrington trusts Williams with more than just coordinating a defense. Arrington has had a different coordinator each of the five seasons he has been in the NFL. Asked if he's looking forward to next season and hoping Williams is still in Washington, and not the head coach somewhere else, Arrington said, "I think it's an opportunity for Gregg to coach a really good defense and get prepped to become a head coach once Coach Gibbs steps down."
Arrington made clear he wasn't speaking for anyone other than himself. And a little continuity on the defensive side of the ball "would make all these hard years worth it. To see him help Coach Gibbs for as long as Coach Gibbs's health holds up. I think that would be a great plan. Why not?"
It's a time for talking about future plans if you're the Redskins and 49ers, and the Redskins seem surely to have the jump on the once dynastic Niners.
For 15 years, the ballpark that sits on Candlestick Point was the best place of all to see pro football. In the 1980s, Joe Montana was on exhibit. With him, early on, was Dwight Clark. Bill Walsh brought intelligence -- some would say genius -- and innovation, and Ronnie Lott the muscle. Great players arrived one after another. As Clark aged, he gave way to the great Jerry Rice. Roger Craig redefined the possibilities for a running back in modern football. When Montana moved on, the Niners did what only the Yankees have done: San Francisco came eerily close to replacing the irreplaceable. Steve Young stepped in and won the franchise's fifth Super Bowl in 13 years.
Even on the occasions they lost there was a certain grandeur, like when they got throttled by the Giants in 1986 and Bill Parcells said it was hard to run those "West Coast" offenses back east in the bitter cold, and a name for Walsh's genius passing attack was born. As recently as a couple of seasons ago, Jeff Garcia looked like a suitable successor to Young and Terrell Owens, at his very best, put you in mind of Rice in his prime.
All that makes it hard to look at the 49ers now. As one San Francisco writer put it, the franchise has gone from dynastic to dysfunctional. At 2-12 after being thumped by the Redskins, the 49ers are the worst they've been since going 2-14 in 1979, the first season for both Walsh and Montana. There didn't appear to be a single great player on board, yet the chief personnel man, Terry Donahue, was recently given a four-year contract extension. The owner and general manager think so little of the head coach, Dennis Erickson, he was allowed to interview for a college job of little stature in the middle of the week, during the team's preparation. There was no offer, and because owner John York doesn't want to pay Erickson $2.5 million for each of the next three years, it appears he'll be right back on the sideline next season, too.
So this is the backdrop for the Redskins' romp here on Saturday, not that the visitors should care one bit. If you beat the bad teams, you make the playoffs. You give yourself a chance, as the saying goes. Forget about the losses to the Eagles, Steelers, Packers and Ravens. If the Redskins had simply beaten the Browns, Cowboys at home and Giants at the Meadowlands, they'd be 8-6 going into two remaining games against bad teams, the Cowboys and Vikings, who couldn't possibly win a cold-weather game outdoors with something on the line for both teams.
But the Redskins will have to settle for reaching smaller incentives the rest of the way, such as Arrington returning to the field after 11 games away; such as getting Gibbs his first victory in San Francisco; such as beating the Cowboys and Vikings to finish the season with three straight victories and a not-entirely-dreadful record of 7-9; such as the defense finishing No. 1 in the entire NFL at season's end. Arrington's presence, of course, makes it easier to reach any and all incentives.