By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Lewis left to become head coach in Cincinnati and was replaced by George Edwards in 2003, giving Arrington four defensive coordinators in four seasons. According to former Redskins, Edwards allowed linebackers such as Arrington and Jeremiah Trotter abundant leeway to roam. Arrington had six sacks, forced seven fumbles and recovered two.
One teammate, who asked not to be identified yet remains a supporter of Arrington and believes he should be playing more, said the linebacker "cost us three games" in 2003 because of mistakes, and it became a subject of conversation in the locker room.
In the third game, Arrington was caught out of position and fooled on a play-action fake involving Giants tailback Tiki Barber, leaving fullback Jim Finn alone to catch a swing pass and gain 27 yards to set up New York's game-winning field goal in overtime. "Arrington bit on Tiki's play action," Finn told reporters after the game. "When I went in motion and got to the end of the line, I saw he was playing inside the tackle, and I knew I had to get out right away because I'd be wide open."
By then, Arrington and owner Daniel Snyder had cultivated a strong affinity for each other. The two were seen together often and appeared to enjoy each other's company. Snyder had developed a reputation for spending heavily on big-name players, and Arrington became the constant homegrown star among the new arrivals.
On the day after Christmas 2003, he was rewarded with the massive contract extension that included a signing bonus reported to be approximately $15.5 million, the largest in team history. Snyder issued a statement saying: "LaVar Arrington is a Redskin through and through. His passion for the game, his punishing style and his determination to win are what make him a great linebacker and a great Redskin. We are happy he'll be wearing burgundy and gold for a very long time."
In early 2004, Arrington's agent, Carl Poston, told the Redskins he believed his client had been shortchanged $6.5 million in the extension. In March, after the reins of the organization were handed over to Hall of Fame Coach Joe Gibbs, Arrington filed a grievance with the NFL over the missing money. The Redskins denied any wrongdoing and at one point issued a statement saying "the business ethics" of Arrington's agent "should be questioned and looked into."
Arrington said he was "disappointed" but remained committed to the team. "I thought there was a relationship. I considered Dan Snyder a friend," Arrington said later that month. "But he's made it like it's his guys versus me and my agents. I'm confused as to why he's handling it like that."
Meantime, Gibbs had moved quickly to build his coaching staff, landing fired Buffalo Bills coach Gregg Williams to run his defense. Williams, in turn, assembled a staff of well-respected, hard-nosed coaches who shared his philosophies and demand for discipline to a detailed scheme.
Williams's defense is predicated on speed and smarts, with linebackers as its lifeblood. They are required to stay in their gaps and must be well-versed in pass coverage to compensate for ample blitzing from the secondary. Williams shifts frequently from his 4-3 base package, using as few as two defensive linemen, and devises new fronts each week. While some systems ensure glory for linebackers, this staff is more concerned with who provides intangibles -- handling double-teams, reading the play well, providing pass pressure -- than who benefits from those efforts with the final tackle or sack.
Williams spoke candidly about the need to change the culture and set about deconstructing the star system that the coaches believed had festered under their predecessors. They had no interest in individual glory, only collective achievement, and overhauled the roster with journeymen to create a no-name defense. Only one defender who started for Washington before Williams's arrival remains in that role -- workmanlike end Renaldo Wynn.
That fall, Gibbs returned with a flourish as the Redskins defeated Tampa Bay in the opener. Arrington started at outside linebacker and had six tackles and the game-clinching sack despite straining his right knee. But one former Redskin said Arrington made a few significant mistakes by not sticking precisely to the system. In the week after the team's next game, a loss to the New York Giants, Arrington underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.
"This defense didn't come easy to him," the former Redskin said, "and he's had five coordinators and been through a lot of different defenses and had a lot to learn. With these coaches, there's no slack. Other coaches here were really patient with him and worked with him, and these coaches, if you don't know all of your stuff, you're not going to play. That's not their problem. That's how they look at it, and everyone there knows it. And then he got hurt, and they felt other guys did a great job, and that group had everything down, and that's who they're going with."
Doctors repaired Arrington's meniscus during the surgery, and he was originally estimated to be out two to four weeks. He was inactive for the next 11 games. The unit thrived in Arrington's absence -- it finished the season ranked third overall and was tops in the NFC -- with previously undrafted free agents such as linebacker Lemar Marshall ascending to starting roles. When Arrington pushed to practice in October, he slipped on a slick field in his first session and suffered a bone bruise that set back his recovery significantly.
By the time he got back in a game in December, Arrington was backing up Marshall. In what would become a harbinger, defensive coordinator Greg Blache told The Washington Post: "If [Arrington] wants to be on the field and compete, he'd better be where he is supposed to be, and he's got to understand that. We've had success because everybody has done their job. We don't need somebody to be a 'superstar.' "
Arrington's right knee never healed, and he was placed on injured reserve Dec. 29. After repeated visits to specialist James Andrews in Alabama, Arrington underwent a second knee surgery, which the team did not initially reveal (Gibbs said repeated messages left for Arrington seeking his approval for releasing the information went unreturned). When Arrington arrived back at Redskins Park on crutches in April, he ripped the organization for its handling of his injury.
"He's the most outspoken guy on the team, and he said a lot of stuff that rubbed the coaches the wrong way," the former Redskin said. "And they're old-school coaches."Grievance a Lost Cause
The grievance hovered throughout this past spring and early summer. It was sent to arbitration when meetings between Snyder and Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, failed to settle the matter. Hearings were repeatedly scheduled and then postponed, with Arrington periodically accusing the team of stalling.
Privately, officials around the league said they believed Arrington had no case. By late July, the framework of a settlement was completed, but it took weeks to sign the deal. A source close to Arrington said Poston requested permission to contact other teams because he was unsure if the linebacker still figured prominently in Washington's plans. That request was denied, the source said. During grievance negotiations the Redskins also sought to include a clause restricting Arrington from making disparaging remarks about the club, the source said, but that could not be confirmed by team officials on Friday.
Poston declined to comment for this story, and Gibbs declined to confirm or deny the trade requests through a team spokesman, saying he is no longer speaking about Arrington-related issues.
About that time, the team reported to training camp. Arrington was limited to working individually with the athletic trainers for the first half of camp. He made his preseason debut in the third of four games -- Aug. 26 against Pittsburgh, his hometown team -- and played with the reserves in the preseason finale.
On Aug. 25, terms of the settlement were announced. Arrington received no additional financial compensation. He was granted the right to exit the contract early if he reached the Pro Bowl in two of the next four seasons. League executives took the settlement to be a token gesture, and the events of this season appear to have rendered it irrelevant.
With blitzing linebacker Chris Clemons injured for the regular season opener, Arrington played with some regularity against Chicago, although Warrick Holdman was now the starting weak-side linebacker. Arrington participated in five plays in Week 2 against Dallas and two plays against Seattle.
After the Seattle game, the source close to Arrington said Poston made a second request to be allowed to shop Arrington to other teams but was denied.No Time for LaVar
Then came the game against Denver, when Arrington never made it onto the field.
The source close to Arrington said last week that Arrington believes he isn't playing because Snyder is exacting some sort of retribution for the grievance. Arrington declined to comment when asked if he believes his benching is related to such matters. As to why precisely he is not playing, Arrington said cryptically: "I'm not for sure. What I may suspect . . . it may be."
The coaches say Arrington's performance is keeping him off the field. They can point to the unit's success -- the Redskins rank fifth in the league in total defense -- as proof that they are doing the right thing.
"The one thing people have to understand is there is no vendetta here," Blache said. "We want to win, and we've all been around long enough to know what it takes to win, and you can't talk your way into a win in this league, you got me? You can bust your hump and do as much as you can and still lose. So we're trying to stack everything we can in our favor to get it done, and hype ain't going to do it; reputation is not going to do it. You've got to do it based on what you do on a daily basis."
The teammate who asked not to be identified said he doubts there is any sort of vendetta involving Snyder and sees this as the coaches' decision, albeit an extreme one.
"I think they are sending a message here," he said. "I think that hits the nail on the head. There's things he's done that have rubbed them the wrong way, and there are things they've done that have rubbed him the wrong way, and now it's a pissing match. In these cases usually the player loses, because you can't put yourself in the game."
Several players said privately that they are shocked by the drastic turn of events, and that coaches might want players to believe no job is ever safe and thus play harder.
One former Redskin sees blame on both sides.
"I don't think it's all LaVar," the former Redskin said. "I think it's a little bit of them, too. LaVar is still LaVar. He loves to play and works hard, and I think he's still one of the 10 best linebackers in the league. He can still make things happen, which is all the more reason to play him on third down. In this system, third and long is just: 'Go.' There's no read and react, it's just, 'Get after the quarterback.' "
The source close to Arrington said the linebacker is most surprised by not at least playing on third-and-long situations. "That's when it really gets personal," the source said.
The Redskins have just two takeaways and only four sacks in four games, making last Sunday's events all the more difficult for Arrington.
"Everybody watching that game knows who's got [big plays] in them," Arrington said. "Everybody playing in that game knows who's got that in them, but what can you do? I know what I'm doing in this system. I'm not going to sit here and start reciting my assignments to prove a point. I'm tired of trying to defend my intelligence level."
With 12 games to play, things could still change. Injuries are inevitable, and Arrington might find himself needed as soon as today. One thing both sides agree on is that Arrington is now healthy. He is eager for a chance to play, but doubts it will come and is bracing for an early exit from the only franchise he has ever known.
"I'm always hungry," Arrington said, "and I've always got a chip on my shoulder, but I've lowered my expectation level now. I don't want to keep disappointing myself."
Arrington said there is little opportunity to improve his position, given his limited plays in practice, but Williams said Arrington "gets his fair share" of practice time, as much as the other second- and third-team players. Arrington is still adamant that no one has explained his status to him -- Williams and Gibbs say that is untrue.
"There's a whole team of coaches, what am I supposed to do?" Arrington said. "I'm one player. What am I supposed to do? And quite frankly, what is it that I'm doing that has me in the situation I'm in? What do you see me doing other than going to work every day, coming off the field, being good to my teammates and them being good to me?"
Unable to show his talent in games, the onus is on Arrington to raise his stock via other avenues, coaches said.
"It's very simple to earn the trust," Blache said. "The ball is in the player's court. We have an audition every day. Show me something. Don't talk to me. It's not how much of a media darling you are. It's not how much people are paying you. Show me. The thing that boggles my mind is we're missing the obvious here. Obviously there's something here that's not getting done. And it's obvious that if things were being done on a daily basis, if there was improvement, if there was production, then it's going to happen. We've already invested the money -- millions, millions. You understand? It ain't like we're saving a cent. We're just trying to win."
Both sides may be hampered in trying to make peace by their hardened positions. Arrington, some at Redskins Park say privately, could do more to stand out in the classroom and the practice field, and cultivate trust from the coaches. An admittedly hard-line staff not prone to making exceptions could perhaps find a way to involve Arrington in at least some of the third-down situations, where there are fewer restraints on players.
"I think both sides need to meet in the middle somehow," said the teammate who asked not to be identified. "He needs to make more of an effort, mentally, to find his place in this system, and somehow they've got to find a way to get him on the field at least in certain situations. I think they can find a way to play him a little more, but you have to earn that trust on every play, and it's not there yet, and I can understand that, too. Everyone here knows he's a big turnover guy and can make those plays, but there has to be that trust that there won't be a big play back the other way, too, and that trust is not there yet."