For five seasons, linebacker LaVar Arrington has been among the most prominent football players in Washington, if not the entire NFL. Yet for all of that personal stardom the Redskins are 34-46 with no playoff appearances since drafting him, despite annual proclamations that this would be the year things turned around. In Septembers past, Arrington was leading that call, but that no longer is the case.
After missing virtually all of the 2004 season with a right knee injury, resolving a contract grievance, dealing with the death of a cousin, getting married and having the defense thrive despite his absence, Arrington, 27, is something of a changed man. He realizes his status as a dominant player -- both on the Redskins and around the league -- is in question after the first significant injury in his career. In all likelihood he might not be on the field all that much in Sunday's season opener against Chicago.
Arrington, the second overall pick of the 2000 draft, is no longer the obvious face of the Redskins, and is a backup to journeyman free agent Warrick Holdman. Even Arrington is unsure about how quickly he will be able to contribute after appearing in only two preseason games. But he vows to focus only on what is under his control, to make the most of each play he gets, to avoid controversy and harness his emotions after the tumult of the past 12 months, which included his sharp criticism of the team over its handling of his knee problems.
"All of that stuff, I've let it go," Arrington said. "Why not? Because I can't do nothing about it. The only thing I can do is with what they give me. I've got great teammates, and I want to see Warrick do well; I want to see all of my teammates do well. So whatever our roles are, that's what they're going to be. I'm not going to try to talk my way into whatever situations people may think I want, how they think LaVar wants it.
"That's been like the biggest misconception of who I am. People think I'm selfish. They think I'm this and think I'm that, and that's not me. How about this: I just want to see the Redskins win, dog. That's the bottom line, and we'll go from there. That's my main focus. No matter where I fit into all of this, I just want to see us win. I've been here six seasons, and I'm tired of losing."
Arrington already has overcome one of his biggest obstacles. He was able to get through two exhibition games without a setback after undergoing two major knee surgeries. "We got him almost the exact the number of plays we wanted to get him in preseason," Coach Joe Gibbs said. Arrington has not started and finished a full regular season game since Sept. 19, 2004, missing 12 games entirely and playing sparingly in two in December before the knee issues -- a meniscus repair and a bone bruise -- cropped back up.
"I take it day-by-day, man," Arrington said of his knee. "Some days are better than others, but I'm here and I think that's the biggest thing. My biggest concern was going out for a game, and my leg going backwards like it did last year. I played pretty well in that San Francisco game [Dec. 18], and then my leg went totally downhill after that. Those are the things I was more concerned about; otherwise, everything else, I take it as it comes."
Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, wants to deploy Arrington not just on the edge as a pass-rushing specialist -- "We want to move him around and not let the opposition tee off on knowing where he's at," Williams said -- but the staff is very reluctant to predict the number of snaps he will get early in the season.
"LaVar still has big-play potential," linebackers coach Dale Lindsey said, "and that's very evident when he's in there. He can do some things that other people can't do, but we're still waiting on him to get back into football shape, to get the feel for the game back, and get the confidence in his knee. We'll bring him back in slowly, but as much as he can handle and we still function well as a team.
"Just because you've done it before, and then you take a year off, doesn't mean you can do it again. There's a rhythm and a feel for the game you have to get back. Your body's got to get used to the contact. Most of the time when guys have knee surgery, they have to get confidence back in that leg. It's a lot tougher process than people think."
Arrington hopes to be a factor, to help the NFL's third-ranked defense from last season soar even higher. But rather then feed into the hype with his trademark bold and brash comments, he is preaching restraint. "My sense is not to buy into all of that," Arrington said. "If we buy into it, we're kind of setting ourselves up. I don't want to be a part of a quote that said that we were going to be special this year. I think we've got the makings of a great unit, and that could make for a pretty interesting season, but we'll see what happens."
Everything is couched these days. There are simply too many variables -- both individually and collectively -- at play. A year older and wiser, after the most trying season of his career, Arrington aims to maintain perspective on whatever challenges he is to face in 2005.
"I think I've had a maturation process go on," he said, "and this is where I'm at, man. Don't get too caught up into what's going on. Don't get too caught up into decisions being made; just worry about playing, being solid in practice, and, hopefully, solid in the games. Right now, I'm back to playing football, and a lot of other things are just details now. I look at things a little differently after everything that's gone on, but I think in the end, I really believe and I hope -- no, I know -- that everything works out for the best."