By Mike Wise
Friday, December 30, 2005
What in all likelihood was LaVar Arrington's last day in the home locker room after a regular season game at FedEx Field featured an ugly shouting match in the training room with his position coach, Dale Lindsey. Arrington had grown tired of Lindsey, the linebackers coach, calling him from upstairs in the booth, berating him for missed assignments in a victory over the New York Giants last Saturday.
He finally hung up on Lindsey, and the feud carried over into the locker room, growing more profane and personal. It ended with Arrington telling Lindsey to "Back off!" and "Treat me like a man!" According to two persons privy to the altercation, the coach went a tad more overboard than the player.
"I was thinking, 'Enough already,' " said one player, on condition of anonymity. "Let LaVar be."
What a fitting send-off for Arrington, the guy who carried Daniel Snyder's banner during the lean years. Beautiful. Way to emotionally beat down a proud, sentimental veteran whose only real character flaw was that he stubbornly believed enough in this organization to want to retire here.
This town is a win from going absolutely ga-ga over Joe Gibbs's team again. Beat the Eagles on Sunday and Gibbs secures a postseason berth for Washington for the first time since 1999. "Ten and six" must sound so much better than 6-10 to the true zealot. What a phenomenal, 12-month turnabout that would be.
But let's not forget the marginalization of Arrington, the franchise's most popular player of the new millennium. The spin being put out on Arrington's latest comments is frankly amazing. Many are ripping the guy who told the Washington Times this week that management didn't want him, that he was most likely done in Washington. People are treating Arrington as if he were a T.O. clone, creating controversy, stirring the pot on the brink of the franchise's most important game in years.
No one is talking about how in two humiliating years, Mr. Redskin was callously turned into Mr. Irrelevant.
Hampered by injury and the lack of confidence his coaches have in him, Arrington rarely plays on third and fourth downs anymore. On many Sunday afternoons, when the opposing offense is facing a third and long, Arrington sits. Never mind that he is bigger and faster than Fred Dean was lining up at defensive end for the great 49ers teams of the 1980s, Arrington's pass-rushing skills are somehow deemed too insignificant to help a blitzing, aggressive defense.
When Arrington is given a fair amount of snaps, the masses are informed that it has nothing to do with Arrington playing the way that earned him two Pro Bowl selections. No, they say LaVar got religion, believed in the principles of defensive coach Gregg Williams's system, finally put in the rehab and film time needed to be rewarded with more playing opportunities.
Arrington was asked about a moment he thought his career changed in Washington. He was reminded of a Wizards game last season. His face was flashed on the overhead video scoreboard and was greeted by intermittent boos. He was taking the heat for his team's dismal season. After the game, Arrington waited patiently as the crowd filed out. He had arranged to get a pair of signed shoes from a visiting NBA player. MCI Center security guards would not let him back near the locker rooms. The most popular athlete in town was treated like a deranged fan demanding to be let in the locker room for an autograph.
Arrington got angry and emotional before his future wife calmed him down. The next day, he canceled his season tickets. Was his love affair with Washington already dying?
"No, the town never turned on me," he said, sitting in front of his locker at the team's practice facility in Ashburn on Wednesday. "They were always behind me. It was individuals. That's all I'm going to say."
He won't say who, but we already know where and with whom the enmity began. Snyder, the team owner who made him fabulously rich and befriended his charismatic, handsome linebacking star, dumped him quicker than AOL stock. From the moment Arrington filed a contract grievance in March 2004, contending the team omitted $6.5 million in bonus money agreed upon for the 2006 season, he was shuttled out of Snyder's suite and sent to the doghouse. The Redskins said they did not owe Arrington the money, and the linebacker eventually dropped the arbitration case.
But with Snyder no longer in his corner, it became open season on Arrington for the coaching staff.
When Arrington was hardly playing in late September and early October this season, he saw Snyder in a hallway and was about to offer some pleasantries. "Don't talk to me," the owner said, according to a person who saw the encounter. "I didn't have anything to do with this."
When Gibbs and his coaching staff took over the team two years ago, they did not consider Arrington to be part of the solution to the franchise's woes; they saw him as another impediment. They believed Arrington could not curb his individualism for the good of the team. They never got around the perception that he could not fit in. They saw Arrington as a nuisance -- a high-maintenance, high-salaried star who could never live up to his Pro Bowl aura or reputation.
As effective and bright as the team's coaches are, they decided who Arrington was and what he was about before they gave him a chance to see what he could become. And when he finally showed them his worth, his body betrayed him again. He played only two full games last season and missed 12 games with a bone bruise.
The injury cost Arrington a shot at proving his worth to Williams and his staff. They moved on and inserted lesser-known players, and the defense turned in one of its best years in recent memory. Returning from offseason knee surgery robbed him of his explosiveness this season. He wasn't their cup of tea to begin with, and his ailments made it that much easier to cast him aside.
Arrington's representatives asked that they be allowed to speak with other teams about a possible trade early this season, but were rebuffed both times. Now, it wouldn't be a surprise if the team waited until mid-July to cut him, after every other franchise has run out of salary-cap room.
Was Arrington also to blame for this pending divorce between player and team? No doubt. He is an emotionally deep, feeling person. If he was being honest with himself, Arrington would admit he took things too personally, internalized every slight, felt his loyalty and accomplishments before Gibbs was hired were completely overlooked by the new regime.
He hated the perception that he was only a freelancing, headhunter, unable to coexist in a defense built on elaborate schemes that demands on-field discipline from its players. It made him look book-smart and system-dumb.
But when your face stops appearing in the team's marketing campaigns, when they don't restock your jersey in the team store until the demand becomes overwhelming, when the assistant gets in your face like you're the walk-on, the writing is on the wall.
Crazy, no? Most people in the organization believe they learned to win without Arrington. They have no idea that they won in spite of how they treated him.