As LaVar Arrington stood in front of his locker yesterday, a towel still draped over his shoulders, he looked at the media crush encircling him, took a deep breath and said, "Golly, it's been awhile." Seconds later, with his eyes a touch misty over the emotion of his first extended action of the season, he admitted: "I felt a whole lot of stuff. Overwhelmed. It was an overwhelming experience."
In Week 7 of the season, Arrington finally was released from what two weeks earlier he had referred to as his coaches' doghouse. He played early, and then he played some more. He had come into the game with no great expectations for increased playing time, and he had no idea how many snaps he took with the first-team defense in the Redskins' 52-17 rout over the San Francisco 49ers. It was probably about 25, but Arrington wasn't counting. He was just thrilled to be playing.
By day's end, with his team reverting to a 3-4 defense for a good portion of the game by design, Arrington -- who hadn't played a down on defense in the team's last three games -- was the Redskins' leading tackler, with seven solo hits and two assists. In the first half, when the linebacker was used mostly on second-and-long situations, fans at FedEx Field stood and cheered every time he stepped onto the field.
He did not disappoint them.
"I attribute 90 percent of my performance today to the energy I got from the fans," Arrington said afterward. "I love 'em for that. They've been behind me through it all. They stuck with me. I was just happy to be out there. I didn't care what package. Making the plays, being on that field, that's what it's all about."
Arrington made plenty of plays that reminded all 90,224 in attendance why he has been to the Pro Bowl three times in his six-year career, and also left many of his countless vocal supporters still wondering why the team waited so long to unleash him on opposing offenses.
On the Niners' second possession, on second and eight from their 31, Arrington dashed to the sideline to tackle San Francisco running back Kevan Barlow and limit him to a two-yard gain. Seemingly trapped inside later in the quarter, he sprinted all the way across the field and nailed quarterback Alex Smith for a one-yard gain near the Redskins' sideline, and when he got up, Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, enthusiastically slapped him on the rear end.
On the final play of the first half, Arrington nailed Barlow for a four-yard loss, then celebrated with an impromptu dance as the Redskins floated toward their locker room with a 35-7 lead.
"I was just happy to feel a part of it again," Arrington said. "Just a beautiful day. It was like I was dreaming today, man. Maybe the next game, I'll get back to normal. But I couldn't have dreamed it any better."
His teammates also said they were delighted to see Arrington back on the field, apparently now recovered from two knee surgeries in 13 months. "I thought he was excellent," outside linebacker Warrick Holdman said. "He came in and provided a spark, added some intensity and it's what we needed. We're happy for him. We're all competitors. We all work hard together. When you see someone is frustrated like he was, you've got to feel for them because we've all been in that situation. It was just great to see him respond the way he did."
"He's a fan favorite," middle linebacker Lemar Marshall said. "He came in there and gave us something we've been missing, and we rallied around him. He brings a lot of energy, with just his presence out there. The quarterback is focused on him, 'Where's LaVar?' I think [Arrington] has a little more confidence in his knee. And when he's out there feeling good and feeling confident, it makes the job a lot easier."
Arrington, who also played on the outside of the line on punt rushes, was hardly perfect. He was on the field for the 49ers' first touchdown, a 17-yard Barlow run through a hole on Arrington's side, but he was buried by a couple of blocks.
"I needed to get inside a little more on that," he said. "But they made a good play. I was upset they scored when I was on the field."
Linebackers coach Dale Lindsey, watching from the coaches' box upstairs, said Arrington "and some other people didn't do a very good job on that."
But he said he also enjoyed watching Arrington make an impact after a month of controversy in which he barely played at all.
"I think all the people here are rooting for him to get back where he was," Lindsey said. "Heck, [the coaches] are, too. He looked closer today to what he was for the first time since I've been back here [the last two seasons]. He looked quicker, faster and in shape. If you're not playing, you do need playing time, and it was good he got it."
Said Coach Joe Gibbs: "He had the best week [the coaches] felt like he had in preparation and play in practice. They had some packages in there that they were going to try to get him in the game. I think he responded and it looked like he made plays, and that was good for us. It was good for him. It was a good day for LaVar."
Arrington was asked if Gibbs had said anything to him afterward.
"Joe said, 'Good game,' " Arrington said, smiling broadly. "Joe Gibbs saying 'Good game'? You work that one out."