Veteran coach Bill Arnsparger took part in his first Washington Redskins practice yesterday, maintaining a relatively low profile while he examined why one of the NFL's seemingly most talented defenses is ranked last in the league. And the Redskins' defensive players, the subject of his scrutiny, insisted they welcomed the input. They are trying to solidify a unit that is surrendering an average of 29.5 points and 433.5 yards per game.
"[Defensive coordinator] Mike Nolan is in full support of it, and we are in full support of it because, as he has said and we all have said, we're here to try to win games," veteran cornerback Darrell Green said. "You change players sometimes; you change whatever you need to change to make your team successful. Everybody here is on the same page as far as that's concerned."
Arnsparger, 72, was hired last week as the team's defensive specialist after Washington's 38-36 victory over the Carolina Panthers. The Redskins defense gave up 21 consecutive points in the game's first quarter before quarterback Brad Johnson directed a furious second-quarter rally. The comeback win boosted the team's record to 3-1.
Owner Daniel M. Snyder ruled out firing Nolan but insisted that something be done. Conversations involving Coach Norv Turner, player personnel director Vinny Cerrato and Nolan led to the decision to bring in Arnsparger, a widely respected defensive strategist.
While the breadth of Arnsparger's responsibilities is unclear, players said they continue to regard Nolan as their leader and expect Arnsparger's suggestions to be relayed to them through Nolan.
"The way we are playing as a total defense, we know we could play better," said defensive end Kenard Lang. "It's like any other business. If you're not producing, you're supposed to have some other eyes come in and see what's happening."
Added linebacker Greg Jones: "Any time you're struggling, you need help. We need some help. So I think that's the way the coaches looked at it; that's the way we look it. We're just trying to get better. We don't want to be last."
The Redskins' defense, which includes six former first-round draft picks, is ranked 31st among 31 NFL teams. While the defense has snagged seven interceptions and forced two fumbles, it also has given up numerous big plays, including touchdown runs of 60 and 45 yards in the first quarter against Carolina.
Redskins opponents have converted 37.5 percent of their third downs and 50 percent (three of six) of their fourth downs. Washington's defense inside the 20-yard line also is ranked last. Of their opponents' 14 trips inside the Redskins 20, 10 have resulted in touchdowns (71.4 percent).
Arnsparger has built an impressive resume during nearly three decades in football. He coached in five Super Bowls, and his defenses ranked either first or second in nine of his 11 seasons with the Miami Dolphins.
"You cannot beat experience," said Green, in his 17th season with the Redskins. "You cannot beat an individual who has a trained eye. I could look at a young cornerback and make an adjustment in five minutes because I've seen it so many times."
Arnsparger's addition almost surely will add to the number of voices in players' ears. The four starting defensive linemen, for example, now have four coaches overseeing their play: two defensive line coaches, Earl Leggett and Rubin Carter, along with Nolan and Arnsparger.
Asked if he was concerned about that, tackle Dan Wilkinson said: "No. Not at this point. He is here to help."
Added safety Leomont Evans: "It's like in a corporation, you've got the head of the corporation and then you've got the people underneath. You know who to listen to."
Arnsparger spent much of yesterday's practice on the periphery of the field, watching as Nolan, Leggett, Carter and defensive backs coach Tom Hayes worked with the players. He didn't address the group as a whole, players said, but spoke to a few individually.
"It seemed like he observed, stood back--like any guy with that experience would do--watched practice and checked the guys out," Green said. "I'm sure he'll bring in his comments to the coaches--not necessarily to us, but to the coaches. And we'll see some benefit from his being here."
Redskins officials are hoping that rookie cornerback Champ Bailey, who has been beaten on several big plays, continues to improve quickly. They need stronger run defense, particularly around the ends. But much of the urgency is directed toward upgrading the play at linebacker, where all three starters--Shawn Barber, Derek Smith and Jones--are in new roles.
The team signed former Redskins linebacker Kurt Gouveia, 35, on Monday after placing backup Malcolm Hamilton on injured reserve. Gouveia is listed behind Jones on the depth chart. Team officials also have talked to Ken Harvey, who retired during the preseason, about possibly returning.
Asked if Barber, Smith or Jones was competing to retain a starting job, Turner said: "When you're not playing as well as you like, you certainly can be. But I expect all three of them to continue to improve and be starters here for a long time. . . . They played a lot better in the second half of the Carolina game than we did in the first. So hopefully we'll keep improving."
Nolan reiterated that it was his idea to bring in Arnsparger, who he said has the best football mind of anyone he has known in his career.
"If it turns around," Nolan said, "I'll be the first to say the only thing that changed since the first four games is Bill."
Staff writer Mark Maske contributed to this report.