Most of the Washington Redskins were already in the locker room after yesterday's practice while linebackers LaVar Arrington and Warrick Holdman lounged on a bench outside, sharing some laughs during their first day back at work after the team's bye week.
There was no discomfort between them, no discord of any sort. The fact that Arrington, a three-time Pro Bowl performer whose name is synonymous with this franchise, is now backing up Holdman, a journeyman free agent who did not arrive here until mid-May, might seem controversial to those outside Redskins Park. But on a defense that shuns a star culture and prides itself on an "everyone is a starter," ethos, this reversal of fortune is not unexpected, and all parties have adjusted accordingly.
"Everything is cool with me and Warrick," Arrington said. "We're together. We're all on the same team; we're all in the same game, man. I wish him the best, and I feel like he feels the same way about me. There's no hard feelings towards him playing ahead of me.
"Warrick can play, man. Warrick can play. Go back to [when he was with] Cleveland, and especially back in Chicago. He can play, no question about it. The man has talent. He can play."
Arrington, 27, who missed almost a full year because of knee injuries, has yet to make an impact in this defensive system, and uncertainty about his health and recovery led to Holdman's offseason signing. Arrington has played quite sparingly, while Holdman, 29, gets the bulk of the snaps, performing solidly if unspectacularly. The defense has not slipped without Arrington -- it ranked third in his absence in 2004 and again in 2005 -- and the coaches appear in no hurry to alter their roles after a 2-0 start.
"Warrick is a good, solid football player," said defensive coordinator Greg Blache, who coached Holdman in Chicago. "He's come in and learned the system. He's contributed in our last two ballgames. We've been pleased. LaVar missed a lot of time with the knee and stuff, and hopefully we'll get him well and back in the flow of things . . . but so far Warrick has done a good, solid job for us."
This is the first time in Arrington's football life that he is not in the limelight, and, while he clearly wants more playing time and is finally feeling healthy, he is coping with the change. "Whatever happens, happens," said Arrington, selected second overall in 2000. "I have no control over it, but I feel fine. The knee is feeling good." Holdman, meantime, aims to make the most of his opportunity, the latest in a line of relative unknowns to rise to starting status in Washington.
Holdman, selected by Chicago in the fourth round of the 1999 draft, lagged behind other players after signing with the Redskins, lacking knowledge of the system and sufficient conditioning through the offseason program. "He was kind of just feeling his way around," Blache said.
Holdman broke into the league playing for hard-nosed Dale Lindsey, Washington's linebackers coach, however, so he at least knew what to expect from a physical standpoint. "Dale coached me for five years," Holdman said, "and when I was a rookie he instilled the work ethic, how I play and how I look at this game. As far as the NFL, he is the one who instilled the qualities you must have to be successful here."
During training camp Holdman adjusted to the overall defense, grasping the intricacies of the scheme, shedding weight and showing his quickness as he rose atop the depth chart.
"The biggest thing to me that I really like about Warrick," Pro Bowl linebacker Marcus Washington said. "is just the way he came in and picked the system up. You've got to take your hat off to a guy who can step in and contribute right away.
"He's definitely system sound. He's not going to make a lot of mental mistakes. He's definitely a solid linebacker, and a guy we know we can count on who is going to be accountable and is going to make the plays that he's supposed to make."
Arrington, who is being used most frequently as a defensive end, has been criticized for being too much of a freelancer, losing position to make a big play. But he excels at shifting momentum -- Arrington had six sacks and seven forced fumbles in his last full season -- and for all of this defense's gains, that turnover-producing element remains lacking.
Holdman has never had more than two sacks or forced more than three fumbles in a season, but is dedicated to fundamentals. Playing for a staff that is not interested in flash and sizzle, he should have every opportunity to impress while Arrington vies for more playing time and offers his support.
"Basically, it's just two guys who are professionals," Holdman said. "If it were the other way around, I would be the same way with him because in the end it's still a business and we're all men.
"I don't control nothing that happens. All I can do is go play my best and whatever the coaches say, I do. So if they tell me he's starting, then I'm going to congratulate him and help him if I can. To me, it's just playing football and it's part of the business, and that's how I look at it."