By Mike Wise
Sunday, January 8, 2006
TAMPA -- When this latest show of defensive grit is archived, one contrast makes the memory: LaVar Arrington, standing where Gregg Williams's system says he should be, a deflected pass suddenly in his gut, churning his legs toward the end zone with an interception; and Sean Taylor, having found gold in a fumble, streaking 51 yards down the sideline for a score at one moment, and then being ejected for spitting in an opponent's face in another.
Arrington, the forgotten veteran, his body as wounded as his pride for much of the season, enjoying what was likely a joyful punctuation mark to his career in Washington. Taylor, the young and the malicious, his emotions and judgment outstripping his talent again.
Arrington was once Taylor, a supernova flying all over the field with deadly, big-play intent, until injuries and an inability to mesh with Williams's coaching staff left him with his current identity: An unwanted player sure he will be on a different team next season.
"It feels good, but it feels like it's not really happening," Arrington said after his and the franchise's first playoff victory in six years. Most of the visiting locker room at Raymond James Stadium had cleared out by the time Arrington was on his second round of interviews, hours after he intercepted a pass for the first time since the 2001 season.
When we wait to talk to Arrington this long, it's usually because something is awry in his career or his relationship with the organization. Last night, everything broke right. He picked off a pass that set the table for a 17-10 offensive eyesore, a game essentially won in the first quarter by Williams's big-play defense. Tomorrow, he will accompany his wife, Trish, to the hospital, where labor will be induced and Arrington hopes to witness the birth of his first child, a daughter.
"Marlee Arrington," he said, proudly. "Nice, right?"
Maybe it's just a coincidence. But personally and professionally, things are eerily falling into place for this team and its players in a way that could make the masses definitely start to dream about Detroit in four weeks.
Arrington played down his interception, calling it "just a play" that he happened to be in the spot he was supposed to be in, that his real accomplishment was finding a way to fit in to a game plan that rarely features him anymore. Arrington also used his own situation as a metaphor for his team, a metaphor for a franchise that keeps moving on in some of most unpretty ways imaginable.
"We hang in there," he said. "That's the covenant between the fans and us. We stick in there."
Think about it. Tampa Bay outgained Washington two to one in total yards and held Mark Brunell to a paltry 25 net passing yards. Taylor, their extremely gifted and fierce knucklehead of a safety, was ejected for spitting on a player in the second half. There were pass completions across the middle thrown by the Buccaneers' Chris Simms that had no business being completed if Taylor was smart enough to keep himself in the game. And yet, Gibbs's guys won. Again.
Perhaps proving that stupidity is an equal-opportunity flaw, Taylor's classless, foolish act came the same week that sorry Marcus Vick purposefully stepped on and ground his heel into another kid's leg after the Virginia Tech quarterback was tackled. Taylor faces possible sanction from the league and is lucky that a suspension is unlikely, given his unsavory on-field past. No matter. As Lemar Marshall said: "Even after he went out, we knew. Someone had to step in."
Marshall was asked if there was something about an old head like Arrington setting up one defensive score in the first quarter, and a young gun like Taylor doing the same -- that there was some bridge transcending age, stature and experience in both players' first playoff game.
"I guess, but you need old crafty veterans like LaVar," Marshall said. "Older guys know how to play and show the younger guys how to do it by example. You can't teach that."
Joe Salave'a, who tipped the pass that Arrington picked off, sounded as if he would want no other teammate to tuck the ball in and run than Arrington. "A lot has been said about things between him and the organization, but when all is said and done he showed he still has a nose for the ball. I love him more than just as a teammate. I love him like a brother. He has a knack for being around the football that you can't replace."
After knocking off Tampa Bay, all around the visitors' locker room here you heard the same thing: teammates more happy for Arrington than Arrington was happy for himself.
If this team has been through an odyssey this season, so too has their one-time star linebacker. After all he and his team have put himself through this season -- the contract-grievance acrimony, the injury and lack of playing time -- to come through with an interception and a major contribution was almost unfathomable.
"For things to naturally happen the way they have, it's like a storybook," Arrington said. "Let's just hope it has that Hollywood ending to it."
Who knows what happens next week in Seattle, whether some other frustrated soul breaks out and makes Gibbs and Williams believe in him again. All that's certain is LaVar Arrington hopes to be a father today and his team lives to play another day. For now, that's seems plenty for which to be thankful.
And who knows what will happen with Taylor. When he was asked about the play during which he spat on Michael Pittman, he replied to reporters, "Which play?" and walked off, a young Turk too caught up in his own victimhood to understand he was wrong.
It's almost cliche to play villians and good guys off one moment of playoff anger. But if Taylor keeps up with this behavior, this thoughtless machismo junk, it's becoming easier to imagine the day when his list of transgressions leaves him running down the sidelines late in a season, carrying the ball toward the end zone and an uncertain future.