Marshall's Been Worth The Wait

"I think it's better to start off on a lower note and finish higher than the other way around," says Redskins middle linebacker Lemar Marshall. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2005

A day in the evolution of Lemar Marshall from an uncertain spare part two years ago to a force on the Washington Redskins' defense goes something like last Thursday: Sit in meetings at Redskins Park and study. Lift weights. Eat lunch. To the delight of your coach, get into a fight with a teammate on the practice field.

Afterward, take questions from teammates about defensive assignments and alignments.

Marshall, who turns 29 Saturday but is only in his second year as a starter at linebacker, has accomplished something that had never been forecast for him. He has emerged as not just the most productive member of the Redskins' defense but as its quarterback, the man assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams relies on to communicate with the unit's 10 other players and act, in effect, as his alter ego on the field.

Marshall says he has something to prove to the three teams that told him he wasn't good enough. He wants to show that not only can he be a reliable, every down starter in the NFL, but one who, in his first year as a middle linebacker after Antonio Pierce left for the New York Giants, can gain the trust of Williams, one of the league's most demanding coaches.

"I didn't know when I was going to get my chance," Marshall said. "For a long time, I just knew I had to be better. I had to hear a lot of things about how I should be playing, but there was always someone else playing ahead of me. But I knew my ability. This has been a learning experience for me. I try not to think about the higher sums of money I could have made. But I think it's better to start off on a lower note and finish higher than the other way around."

The arc of Marshall's career is a study of perseverance in the intensely competitive world of the NFL. It began with deep disappointment and resentment and was resurrected under a system in which Redskins defensive coaches have helped Marshall process the slights and anger from the past and channel them in a positive direction. Marshall leads the Redskins in tackles this year, with 103, 81 of them solo. He's started every game, and is the only Redskin to score a defensive touchdown.

"You're looking at a guy who went from someone we used as a replacement to a guy who you leaned on," said Greg Blache, the team's defensive coordinator. "As good as he was last season, he's that much better this year. What he is next season should be better than this year. This isn't the last step for him."

Marshall, who played college ball at Michigan State, was not drafted in 1999. He spent time with Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, and Denver before joining the Redskins as a free agent in 2002. Steve Spurrier, Washington's head coach at the time, seemed to hold him in low regard, Marshall said.

When Williams took over the defense under Coach Joe Gibbs in 2004, he had something of an epiphany during training camp that summer. Overwhelmed by opinions about players on whom he did not have much firsthand knowledge, Williams decided he would no longer look at scouting reports, both internal and external. The slate was going to be clean. Players were no longer going to be judged on reputation or status.

It did not matter, Williams said, if a player was the fifth pick in the draft like Sean Taylor, a big-money free agent like Shawn Springs, hugely popular like LaVar Arrington, or an undrafted defensive back-turned linebacker like Lemar Marshall.

For Marshall, Williams's approach was energizing, for he had long believed that not being drafted had hurt him.

"It got tiring, always having to listen to your teammates that you should be playing," Marshall said. "You hear it from them, but you can't do anything about it because you weren't a free agent or a high draft pick. When Spurrier was here, I wasn't getting anything. No reps, nothing. Then, in the game, I could show them a little something. A lot of it was politics."

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