Stars Arenas, Taylor Illuminate the D.C. Landscape

By George Solomon
Sunday, July 27, 2008

This week was about stars, news conferences, klieg lights and sound bites.

Gilbert Arenas did not wear a suit to his presser on Tuesday, but looked splendid in a fabulous black shirt while sitting next to Wizards owner Abe Pollin, team president Ernie Grunfeld and Coach Eddie Jordan.

The day before, Jason Taylor wore a suit at his news conference at Redskins Park, filling up a dark pinstriped number so well my friend Mary Pat and I agreed the "Dancing With the Stars" runner-up makes heartthrob David Beckham look like Radovan Karadzic on a bad day.

Arenas, who this month signed a six-year, $111 million contract, was ebullient in his first public remarks since returning from a shoe company-sponsored tour of Asia and Europe. And why not? He was treated like a rock star on his trip, probably "because of my blog," Agent Zero reasoned.

"We're going to put a banner up here, a championship banner. That's the kind of talent, that's what kind of team and what kind of belief we have," Arenas said.

Looking at Pollin, Arenas added, "Mr. Pollin had the belief and trust in me from the start . . . and this is the city that has embraced me."

Taylor's arrival in town Monday had the feeling of a savior rescuing a desperate city, with all the newspaper reporters, television and radio microphones -- not to mention the Redskins' Red Zebra media empire -- poised and ready to record his every word. What's a fair comparison? "Superman IV?" Or, at least "Batman Over the Potomac"?

The loss of defensive end Phillip Daniels for the season with a torn ACL on Sunday morning -- the first training camp practice under new coach Jim Zorn -- left Redskins fans in despair. "A devastating blow," defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

But several hours later, team vice president Vinny Cerrato, after verbally tap-dancing around local scribes in a manner as slick as any shifty Capitol Hill pol, came up with Taylor. Cerrato and owner Dan Snyder deftly obtained the 33-year-old sackmeister, on the outs in Miami with new Dolphins boss Bill Parcells, for two draft choices and a promise Taylor would complete his two-year, $17 million contract.

That left Taylor to pass his physical exam and dominate the 6 p.m. newscasts.

"The only way he was going to fail that physical is if he quit breathing," WRC-TV commentator Sonny Jurgensen said. "They'll miss Daniels, but Taylor is an upgrade for this team. He makes them solid defensively."

Taylor said all the right things Monday ("I'm just trying to feel my way"), began practicing the next morning and even accepted No. 55 because defensive end colleague Andre Carter wears Taylor's favorite number, 99. (Memo to Taylor: Some of us believe 55 belongs to Chris Hanburger forever, so you might call and ask him if it's okay).

"Jason will be a great addition to the team," linebacker Marcus Washington predicted. "He's smart, has a quiet confidence and knows how to have fun."

All platitudes and fawning aside, Arenas and Taylor both begin their 2008 seasons with questions surrounding their futures that, in turn, impact their teams.

Arenas, 26, has had surgeries on his left knee in each of the last two seasons, reducing his playing time and effectiveness dramatically. When healthy, Arenas is an all-star, a great player who makes game-winning shots, displays incredible energy, excites the fans and fills seats.

But, as teammate and fellow multimillionaire Antawn Jamison said this month, "Gil needs to mature, cut out some of the crazy stuff."

Such as: Communicate better with Jordan, who sometimes last year did not know his star's availability until Arenas was actually playing on the court. "I saw what my teammates can do without me last year," Arenas said. "I understand I no longer have to do all the scoring. And I know I have to cut out some of the foolishness."

And play defense?

"Hey, I played defense last year," Arenas said.

"Gilbert is a different kind of guy," Pollin said. "I know talent and what he can do. He's a true all-star in every sense of the word.

"Most important is my belief in good people. Gilbert is a good man; he does a lot for people. I believe he's a fantastic human being and basketball player."

Aug. 1 is the date Arenas has set for his return to full-time basketball workouts, preparing for a season that drains and tests the healthiest and strongest athletes and concerns anxious doctors. "I'm good," Arenas said. "I've never been out this long; I'm ready to go."

In 1964, Pollin, now 84, and former partners Arnold Heft and Earl Foreman purchased the team for $1.1 million. Nearly 44 years later, Pollin has committed $211 million to three players: Arenas, Jamison and Caron Butler. "Making the playoffs is no longer enough," Grunfeld said -- a message understood by all.

Is Taylor Another Bruce Smith?

For Taylor, the issue is, at 33 and 255 pounds (undersized for a defensive end), whether he can sustain the excellence that over 11 seasons produced 117 sacks (14th all-time), 6 Pro Bowl selections and an extraordinary 130 regular season starts?

A friend who makes his living watching NFL games said Taylor is a "speed guy" who last year was not as "explosive as he once was and may be on the downside of his career."

That was the same description used for all-time sack leader Bruce Smith, who ended his 19-year career playing defensive end for the Redskins from 2000 to '03.

"At 37, I was four years older than Jason when I came to the Redskins," Smith said in an interview this week. "But I still had a passion for the game. I might have lost a half-step, but I was motivated to prove that while older, I was wiser. I knew I had to study and watch lots of film to compete."

If nothing else, the tumult took some of the focus away from Zorn, who only finished a distant fourth in area media coverage this week to Taylor, Arenas and Barack Obama.

Nationals Look Ahead, Count on Patience

The Nationals continue to build for the future, I think, trading closer Jon Rauch to Arizona for speedy 23-year-old second baseman Emilio Bonifacio. The Nats also signed all-star shortstop Cristian Guzmán to a two-year contract extension. Rauch improved in each of his three seasons in Washington, and who knows if Bonifacio will become the team's future second baseman?

Ownership and the front office appear to be counting on the patience of their fans, as well as the lure of the new ballpark, a healthy Ryan Zimmerman and an interesting pitching staff to get through 2008. But they should know that while hope is good, it doesn't last forever.

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