Arrington Facing 4th and 'So Long'?
Sunday, October 16, 2005
He marched from one damp end of the sideline to the other, often standing alone in his unblemished uniform while a frenetic football game unfolded before him. Eventually, the helmet came off, and unused linebacker LaVar Arrington procured a more permanent residence atop a water cooler, draped in a coat as the chilling rain fell from the Rocky Mountain sky.
The linebacker tried to remain upbeat last Sunday afternoon, greeting teammates with an animated fist bump during substitutions. But for the first time in his career, Arrington was benched for an entire game -- the Washington Redskins' 21-19 loss to Denver -- when he was healthy enough to play. To his ardent supporters, and there are a great many in these parts, the scene had the air of a public humiliation and detracted from the joy of Washington's surprising 3-1 start.
Gradually, a love affair between player and team has deteriorated into a shattered relationship full of contradicting statements. Arrington, 27, the second overall pick in the 2000 draft and a three-time Pro Bowl pick, is the highest-paid spare part in the NFL going into today's game in Kansas City, having endured a precipitous drop in stature unseen in Washington sports. Arguably no athlete this popular has fallen so far, so fast without a severe injury or an obvious decline in performance. The development baffles many fans, and intrigue about the situation remains high as the player who was once the face of the organization now has the starring role in a weekly soap opera.
"You've got a young guy who has been to three straight Pro Bowls, and he's healthy, and he never gets into the game," one NFL general manager said. "Boy, I've never heard of that. I'm sure there are some subplots going on there, but I've been in this league a long time, and that's a new one for me. I think that's pretty unheard of."
How did it come to this? Interviews with former and current players, coaches and sources around the league provide a portrait of a player who might have fallen out of favor with coaches because of the reckless playing style and candor that made him so popular with fans. Those close to Arrington see something more sinister, a vendetta by the Redskins because of a recently settled financial dispute.
Although the season is young, an amicable resolution appears unlikely after a tense week of charges and countercharges. Arrington said he is resigned to his plight, and eventually the Redskins could very well wind up jettisoning a player who in 2003 received an eight-year, $68 million contract extension that made him among the highest-paid players in the history of the NFL.
Happy at First
It started off so wondrously. Hours after being drafted in April 2000, Arrington touched down at FedEx Field in a helicopter, the chosen one who would reinvigorate a long-faltering franchise. At 6 feet 3 and 255 pounds, and with explosive speed, the rookie immediately displayed a penchant for eye-popping plays and bone-jarring collisions. He made his first start in the fourth game and finished fifth on the team in total tackles and third in sacks, with four that season. In a loss to Dallas on Dec. 10, Arrington ended quarterback Troy Aikman's career with a concussive blow on a clean hit.
Coach Marty Schottenheimer took over in 2001 and, although usually a stickler, allowed Arrington the freedom to make plays. Arrington responded with his first Pro Bowl season, registering 100 tackles, intercepting three passes (returning one for a touchdown) and recovering two fumbles. Schottenheimer was looking at an 0-6 start when a late Arrington interception sparked a 17-14 victory over Carolina. The Redskins finished 8-8, the best record they have compiled over Arrington's career.
Arrington became established as a fan favorite, despite the team's lack of success. Arrington has a natural charisma and charm, an ebullient personality and was a regular presence at malls, charity functions and sporting events all over the area.
But the first sign of trouble came after Marvin Lewis took over the defense under Coach Steve Spurrier in 2002. Lewis and Arrington clashed over his role. Ultimately, Arrington thrived as a pass-rushing down lineman, posting a career-best 11 sacks. In a game against St. Louis, he sacked Kurt Warner and forced a fumble to clinch the victory. But privately, Lewis said Arrington was ill prepared to handle coverage duties. Lewis, who declined to comment for this story, later told Sports Illustrated magazine that Arrington was the most "undisciplined" player he had ever coached.
In NFL circles, Arrington began to gain a reputation as a "freelancer," or someone who does not always adhere to the letter of the game plan in his desire to make plays. Joe Paterno, Arrington's coach at Penn State, had expressed similar sentiments, but Arrington has long rebuffed the notion.
"I'm hungry to make a play, and sometimes I might overrun a play," Arrington said. "I'm not above saying that. Who doesn't, you know? Who doesn't? I don't know, the last time I checked people make mistakes. I don't know one person who has played a perfect game yet. For Marvin to say I drove him crazy and didn't know my scheme, for the record, I did lead all linebackers in the National Football League with  sacks. . . . I don't know if that's doing too bad for not knowing what you're supposed to do."