Following Sunday night's 17-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington had trouble sleeping when he arrived at his Annapolis home. Arrington restlessly watched some late-night shows. Later, as the TV flickered, Arrington sat on his couch, staring at the walls in deep thought.
With the Redskins dropping to 1-4 despite another sturdy defensive showing, Arrington -- who has missed the past three games with a knee injury -- struggled to come up with the right words of encouragement for his teammates. "I did a lot of soul searching," Arrington recalled yesterday, "wondering what to say to the guys, wondering how they feel."
Because Arrington couldn't fall asleep after the game, he was exhausted after arriving at Redskins Park by 8:15 a.m. Monday. He said he felt compelled to keep players united after Washington's fourth straight loss. Although Arrington didn't address the team collectively, he spoke to several clusters of players about not giving up on the season.
Arrington found that a few other veterans, such as cornerback Fred Smoot and defensive end Phillip Daniels, also were taking preemptive steps to maintain team unity.
"Me and [Arrington] had been through the situation before," Smoot said yesterday. "So he knows I'm the last one he really has to talk to about it. We had already brought it up, letting everybody know: 'The only way we're going to make it out of this is to stay together.' "
A small group of veterans met, without the coaching staff's knowledge, to discuss ways to overcome the team's struggles. Smoot confirmed the get-together but declined to reveal details except to say the meeting was positive, with unity being the recurring theme.
Since then, several veterans have become proactive at the slightest sign of frustration, especially among defensive players who have watched the offense struggle. The offense's woes have raised the prospect of several potentially divisive issues, such as Coach Joe Gibbs's play-calling and his decision to stick with quarterback Mark Brunell over last year's starter, Patrick Ramsey.
"If I see even the slightest finger-pointing going on, I'll say something," defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin said. "Even if the offense is struggling, the defense has to play better. We can't start bickering. If we start, we don't have a chance at all."
Arrington agreed: "I don't care how bad [the offense] is. You don't turn on one another. We had opportunities to make plays that could have won that game."
Washington's four-game losing streak, several players said, is especially demoralizing because of the excitement surrounding Gibbs's return and the Redskins having the highest player payroll in the league as well as one of the league's most accomplished coaching staffs.
As Gibbs revamped the team, replacing roughly half of the 53-man roster from a year ago, he and his assistant coaches repeatedly stressed that they were searching for "character guys." So far, at least, the approach appears to have paid off in how players have reacted to the team's adversity.
"The great thing about it is we've got great characters here and there won't be any bickering," wide receiver James Thrash said. "The young guys understand it just as well as we do that although we lost four games, we continue working hard. We've got a lot of games ahead of us."
Last season, the Redskins suffered a four-game losing streak and finished 5-11. Turmoil was rampant between the front office and Coach Steve Spurrier's staff, and players who objected to the offense's reliance on the pass.
Several current players said they believe that Gibbs's track record and calm demeanor over the past two weeks have helped. Despite Washington's struggles, Gibbs has exuded confidence and assured his players that they will start winning, starting Sunday against the Chicago Bears.
"We have great coaches. Everybody respects them," tackle Chris Samuels said. "So guys are just staying with it."
Also, players point out, the Redskins' four losses have been by an average of five points; the largest margin of defeat was just seven points.
The only known fissure occurred minutes after a 17-13 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 3. Running back Clinton Portis, who ran for only 58 yards on 20 carries in one of the worst games of his career, told reporters that the Browns defenders were "literally" calling the run plays.
After reviewing film of the game the morning after, Gibbs gave a strong rebuttal of Portis's claims. Joe Bugel, the assistant head coach-offense, publicly admonished Portis. The two eventually hugged and patched things up late last week.
Portis's comments stemmed from frustration after a tough loss, Samuels said yesterday, noting that Portis also took blame for the team's slow start. Since the loss to Cleveland, Portis has declined to be interviewed by the local media.
Washington is in the midst of its worst start since the 2001 season, when coach Marty Schottenheimer's team was 0-5 before finishing 8-8. Eight current Redskins played on that club, including Samuels, who has brought up the experience in locker room conversations with teammates
"We kept pumping the weights, we kept working hard at practice," Samuels recalled of 2001, "and the season turned around just like that. We went through a tough time then and we just fought our way out of it. A lot of guys probably haven't been through that. Maybe a few, like the former Jets guys."
Wide receiver Laveranues Coles, kicker John Hall, returner Chad Morton and tackle Randy Thomas were on the New York Jets in 2001. That club also lost four of its first five, yet finished 9-7 to make the playoffs.
"We're at the bottom right now," Samuels said. "The only way we can go is up."