Linebacker LaVar Arrington was the last person off the practice field at Redskins Park yesterday afternoon, an unusual sight for a three-time Pro Bowl performer but a distinction befitting the linebacker's plight. At this time a year ago, Arrington was the face of the Washington Redskins, a charismatic playmaker recognizable nationwide. Now, after 11 months spent largely out of the limelight while recovering from a serious knee injury, he is among hundreds of NFL players hoping to impress in a preseason game.
Arrington, 27, will make his preseason debut tomorrow at FedEx Field against Pittsburgh, his hometown team, and may play a great deal depending on how the game develops and how his long-suffering right knee holds up. Even Arrington is unsure of what exactly to expect, although he feels better than he has in a long time and is in great shape, according to Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense.
Once inclined to brash proclamations, Arrington is now intent on simply showing he can make a difference. He spoke at length yesterday about his desire to return to form in his first extensive public comments in five months.
"People think I might be washed up," said Arrington, who has made few public remarks since criticizing the organization over the handling of his injury in April. "Maybe they'll see something like that [tomorrow], maybe they won't. We'll wait and see. It just makes it all the better to prove them wrong. If not, then I was washed up. I'm just waiting to get the nod, to get the opportunity. Do I feel washed up? No. But I'm not going to talk a lot of trash. We'll wait and see what happens."
This past year, which included getting married, has been a period of transition for Arrington. He clearly felt hurt to be no longer contributing, and given his health, largely forgotten. Arrington was also at odds with the organization over a $6.5 million grievance dating from December 2003, when he signed his new contract. Last month the sides met to air their concerns and lay the foundation for a settlement, sources told The Washington Post, but since then other issues have emerged for both parties, requiring further negotiation and delaying a final resolution.
Arrington, the second overall pick of the 2000 draft, has finished his second week of practice since passing a physical and was admittedly fatigued after his third straight contact session in full pads. He has not played a full game since Sept. 19 and will be featured in several packages tomorrow, according to Williams.
"We're excited about the opportunity to get him back out there going full go," Williams said. "He's had a good week of practice and really has had a pretty solid training camp when you talk to the trainers. Selfishly, yeah, I'm excited to see him in the best condition since I've been here."
Depending on what the Steelers do, Williams estimated Arrington could get up to 30 snaps, which would be his most since a lateral meniscus injury forced him off the field in late September. Arrington badly bruised a bone during his comeback, played sparingly in two games in December and then required a second knee surgery in the offseason.
In the meantime, the Redskins' defense shattered all expectations without him. A group lacking Arrington's massive contract or pedigree, the defense ranked third in the NFL, and lesser-known players like Antonio Pierce rose to prominence. Given the severity of his injury and the lengthy layoff, Arrington is being worked back slowly into the defense and is not among the starters now.
"I just want to get my feet wet," Arrington said. "Whatever happens is going to happen. That's how I look at it. I want to go out there and play the smartest, best game I can play. I'm trying not to put too much pressure on myself. I want to make sure I'm still able to laugh at myself if I do something good or something bad."
Arrington said the biggest hurdle to overcome was contact drills. Having withstood that, and buoyed by prayer, he has been cleared to play again. At his father's request, Arrington's congregation prayed for him before training camp and again at a service a few weeks ago.
"I believe in miracles," Arrington said, "and I believe at that point I really did feel a change. Whether it's a more mental thing than it is divine intervention, I don't know, but I feel pretty good."
Arrington also praised the work of the training staff for guiding him along -- his comments to the contrary began a firestorm in April -- and did not rule out shedding a tear while back on the field tomorrow.
"It's hard being a leader for so long and being a focal point for so long," Arrington said, "and then it kind of abruptly stops. It's nice to be back in the mix, and it's also nice not to have 'The Player' pressure on me anymore. It's on other guys this year, so it's going to give me an opportunity possibly to just go out here and play and let the other people have that kind of attention."