The last time Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington started and played an entire game at anything close to full health was at the end of the 2003 season, in the final days of Steve Spurrier's stint as the team's coach. But after another coaching change, prolonged knee problems and spending much of this season on the bench, Arrington could start Sunday night against Philadelphia.
Arrington has earned praise from coaches and had considerable playing time with the first-string defense during yesterday's practice, a first this season.
Arrington, a three-time Pro Bowler, has played much more regularly in the past two games than he did in the first five. While the entire defense suffered in Sunday's 36-0 loss at New York, the "weak side" was particularly vulnerable and Arrington replaced starter Warrick Holdman in the second half. Linebackers coach Dale Lindsey, while stopping short of declaring either player's status for the Eagles game, said that Arrington's play has been improving.
"We decided to use him there [in the base package] and it was a chance to try to make something happen, and it was also a chance to let him play," Lindsey said. "He did reasonably well [Sunday] for him. He's improving every week. I think he's done remarkably well the last couple of weeks as far as getting in, learning what the other guys are doing, learning what he's got to do, and when that happens you can start to see his athletic ability come out, and he's made some good plays.
"I think LaVar's play, I see an arrow going up. I see a guy with the light coming on and athletically he's getting more and more well. I think he's getting confidence in his leg about blitzing, changing direction, chasing the play down. I think he's got to a point where up here [in his head] he feels good about his knee, too."
Arrington was never himself in 2004. He injured his knee in the first quarter of the opener, hobbled through Week 2 and then underwent the first of two surgeries on his right knee. He has not started since.
"He was behind and I think he's closing the gap and getting a lot more work," Coach Joe Gibbs said. Arrington did not get a snap with the defense in the fourth and fifth games this season, but made several big tackles against San Francisco. But even then he was being used only in particular packages. Against the Giants, Arrington was on the field for play after play in the second half, something that had not been the case in over a year.
"You get a rhythm," Arrington said. "I thought it was great to be able to have that opportunity, and this is the first time this season that I've had that opportunity. Even though it was in a losing effort, I felt like it was a good thing for me to have that opportunity to get in there and hit and hit and hit on a consistent basis and get a feel for what I need to really work on to be able to be more effective."
Arrington believes his timing is improving and, after such a significant layoff, he is rediscovering the nuances of his game, like reading a running back or pass protection scheme, or getting a feel for how a quarterback is moving. Three times Sunday he felt as if he was on the cusp of recording a sack or forcing a turnover, but missed by inches. As his repetitions have increased in games and practices, he is regaining those instincts.
"If you study the type of player I am, historically, I make all my big plays in the second half," Arrington said. "Now, people can criticize me for it or they can say, 'All right.' I take a whole half, I play solid football, but the times that I'll take a chance and have gotten upfield [is in the second half]. There are certain things it's hard to get ahold of if you're just coming in off the bench. It's hard to get in a rhythm -- my timing of my rush, different things like that. It's hard, but as I went on in that half I got comfortable, and I think it showed in the way I was playing.
"I got more and more comfortable as I went on in the half, and that's like the first time I'm back. So if people were expecting me to do some ridiculous things, I came in in the second half of a tail-kicking. If you're expecting me to go out there and make the plays I made early on in that San Francisco game, it's not going to happen, because that wasn't the type of game we were in. It was a grind-it-out, smash-mouth game [Sunday] at that point because they already had a pretty big lead on us. But I'm not complaining. I'll take it. Whatever the situation was, I'll take it, because I was in there and I was getting familiar with playing every down, which felt good. I felt good after the game. I felt like I could have kept going."
The defensive coaches believe Arrington's quickness and explosiveness have reemerged in practice the last few weeks. He also has become more accustomed to this defensive scheme. "He's taken responsibility on himself to do that, and I think that's really good," Lindsey said. "That's what we have to have."
However, the overall results must be better regardless of who is playing weak-side linebacker, coaches said. Last year, Lemar Marshall, who now plays middle linebacker, filled in expertly on the weak side when Arrington was injured, but teams have been taking advantage of that side for big plays in the last five games. Holdman, who is not speaking with the media, ended up spending the second half of Sunday's game stuck on the sideline.
"His production didn't show that high, but Warrick did some things the other day I liked better than what he was doing in other games," Lindsey said. "He had more energy than he had the three previous games -- particularly Denver and Kansas City -- and it looked like he played with some gusto. He took some shots and he looked like he was physical. He looked more like the guy I used to know.
"But we've got to get more out of him, too. So our 'Will' [weak-side] linebacker position has not been as productive as we'd like it to be with either of those guys in there, particularly when you look back last year when we had Lemar over there. He was very productive and he did a pretty damn good job for us last year. We've got to get those two guys to play that one position and give us the same thing Lemar gave us."