In the Blame Game, It Goes Both Ways

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

LaVar Arrington should have played his entire career with the Washington Redskins. He should have won a championship here. One day, he should have had his name put in that ring of honor, or whatever the Redskins call it, right alongside Sonny and Sam and Riggo and D. Green. He should have retired as one of the all-time greats the club has ever had because he came to Washington with as much raw talent and as much passion as you could pack into one linebacker.

It seemed he would be more than capable of playing the most thrilling, most glamorous position there is on defense: the position of kill the quarterback. Arrington worse jersey No. 56, Lawrence Taylor's number. And instead of laughing at the notion, at what could have been perceived as pure conceit, we watched him when he was 22 years old and thought, "It's not so far-fetched. In time, maybe he'll be that great."

But it never happened, not the way it should have happened, not to the degree it should have happened. It never played out like we or he expected. There was an injury, a re-injury, a contentious contract dispute, a half-season affixed to the bench, and now LaVar Arrington is going to play for somebody else. Sports are funny like that, the way the can't-miss players pretty much miss.

And some of it surely is Arrington's fault, the way he failed to connect with Marvin Lewis and Gregg Williams, two of the brightest defensive minds in pro football, men who could have helped him. Given the results of defenses coached by Lewis and Williams, it's crazy to suggest that these men don't know what they're doing. And I suppose in the examination of what went wrong between the Redskins and Arrington you can dwell on what happened in the lost season of 2005 and whether Arrington was too much the freelancer and whether the defense was better off without him.

But there is a bigger picture, one so outsized and whose colors are so clear it simply shouldn't be ignored. While Arrington isn't blameless, the Washington Redskins deserve the larger share of the blame. The dysfunction of the early years of the Daniel Snyder era, from 2000 until Joe Gibbs's arrival for the 2004 season, is more to blame.

Players suffer coaching changes all the time; it's life in the NFL. But few players have suffered as much change as Arrington. In 1999, his final season in college, Arrington played for Joe Paterno. In 2000, as a Redskins rookie, Arrington played for Ray Rhodes, who was coaching the defense for Norv Turner. In 2001, with Turner having been fired, Arrington played for Kurt Schottenheimer, who ran the defense for his brother, Marty. In 2002, with Schottenheimer gone, Arrington played for Marvin Lewis, who ran the defense for Steve Spurrier. In 2003, with Lewis gone to coach the Bengals, Arrington played for total neophyte George Edwards, who ran the defense in Spurrier's second season. And in 2004, with Spurrier gone, Arrington played for Gregg Williams, who ran the defense for Gibbs.

That's six defensive schemes, some of them radically different, in six seasons. The 2005 season was the first time Arrington got to play for a defensive coordinator a second consecutive season.

So his life as a Redskin was one of line up here; wait, line up there. Play in down stance. No, that was the previous guy; we want you to play standing up. Play over here on the weak side so that we can take advantage of your speed in open space. No, you need to take on the tight end, so we'll play you on the strong side. Okay, this season you're going to kill the quarterback. No, forget that because you have to pay strict attention to your gap control. This system requires you to rush the passer. We're in a new season and new system so you're going to use that speed to drop back into coverage. Should you be playing middle linebacker, to take advantage of all that speed and move sideline to sideline? Or should you be playing outside?

And so it went.

Please don't tell me you just play through that.

If I had five sports editors in my first five years, my most formative years, I wouldn't be able to write my name.

Not only were there four head coaches, and five coordinators, but there were position coach changes I can't even keep track of. (Arrington was quoted by the Associated Press as saying of Williams and linebackers coach Dale Lindsey, "I wasn't one of their guys . . . I've gotten older. I'm not just a young rookie who is as moldable. Maybe that's where the difficulties came in.") Five coaches in five seasons is an environment conducive to getting the best out of anyone?

And despite all that, he was coming off his third Pro Bowl season, in December 2003, when the Redskins approached him about restructuring his deal and, before you knew it, there was a dispute over $6.5 million.

Arrington got hurt in his first game playing for Gibbs. And I was at Redskins Park the day Arrington went to the practice field before it was time. Bubba Tyer did everything but get down on his knees and beg him not to practice. I remember it raining and I remember asking Arrington why in the world he was going to practice on a bad knee in the rain sooner than later. I remember driving home from Redskins Park, and hearing on the radio that Arrington had re-injured his knee.

From then, all there was was way too much drama and way too little separating the quarterback from his senses.

I've heard the explanations from the coaches as to what Arrington wasn't doing to their liking, and it made sense.

But I also had opposing quarterbacks pull me aside and ask, with a sigh of great relief, "Are they seriously not going to play LaVar today?" And it made just as much sense that if quarterbacks were that happy he was on the bench, then perhaps he should have been on the field.

I don't know exactly what to believe, other than this should have turned out better than it did.

It shouldn't have come to this, even if Arrington did leave $4.4 million on the table to secure his own free agency, which is really and truly putting your money where your mouth is. Arrington, talking to John Thompson on Sportstalk 980 yesterday, called it "beneficial now for both sides to cut its losses."

Arrington said he would have remained a Redskin "in an ideal world" because there were "too many relationships forged to just check out of D.C . . . I'm not going to deny what I am . . . a Washingtonian."

Arrington really is loved here, like nobody else playing currently for the Redskins, like nobody playing for the Wizards or Capitals.

But you know where this is going, don't you?

A jersey with No. 56 on it may not mean all that much to the Redskins. But my bet is a certain coach named Parcells got a big 'ol Texas smile on his mischievous face when he heard the news that Arrington was a free agent. Oh, No. 56 means something to Coach Parcells, I promise you. When Arrington told reporters, "I want to come back and walk in FedEx Field once a year," don't you think he had something along those lines in his head?

Arrington, for all the drama he's been through, is still only 27 years old. The Redskins don't want him, but that doesn't mean he's finished or that he can't make it back to the Pro Bowl or that he can't help a team win a championship. It just means it'll be for somebody else, maybe for a hated rival. If there's going to be any more drama involving LaVar Arrington, let's hope at least some of it plays out right here, where he belongs.

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