The roar from 90,000-plus fans in FedEx Field grew as the television timeout expired, reaching a peak a few seconds before the Washington Redskins' defense took its first snap Sunday night. LaVar Arrington, who had gone from being the face of the franchise to a disenfranchised reserve linebacker, was at the center of the noise as he prepared to join the first-team defense for the first time in more than a year.
Arrington's tumultuous saga finally has reached a positive conclusion. After various lingering knee injuries, feuds with the organization and being benched for two games last month, the three-time Pro Bowler was back in the starting lineup and played regularly for an entire game. He jumped up and down excitedly as he awaited the Philadelphia Eagles' first offensive play and acknowledged the applause by raising his right arm and pumping his fist. It was his moment, one he doubted would ever come again just a few weeks ago.
"That was pretty cool, huh?" Arrington said of the cheers. "I was thinking, 'Wow, I'm really in here.' It was a great deal. Man, I had an opportunity to be a part of what I've been a part of for so many years. It was nice getting back out there on a regular basis."
Arrington, 27, played nearly every first and second down of the 17-10 victory -- linebacker Chris Clemons continues to play in many third-down situations -- while Warrick Holdman, the former starter at weak-side linebacker, never got a play. Their roles were completely reversed, and the coaches hope that Arrington will soon be making the kind of game-turning plays that defined the first four years of his career. Arrington injured his knee in the first game of 2004 and was never healthy again. Regaining his position was a lengthy process that finally ended when he started the Redskins' eighth game.
"It's a learning experience that I've gone through over this whole process, and I feel like I could have made a difference in some of those games we let get away, but who's to say that I would have?" said Arrington, the second overall pick of the 2000 draft. "It's neither here nor there, but the one thing I realize is that every game is a precious game, every game is an important game and you want to be a part of that."
Washington's defense has remained among the best in the NFL -- it ranks seventh overall heading into Sunday's game at Tampa Bay -- but has produced just six turnovers and only 14 sacks. Arrington specializes in both areas -- he has single-season highs of 11 sacks, 3 interceptions and 6 forced fumbles -- and the expectation is that his increased playing time and comfort in the team's defensive scheme will soon produce similar results.
"We need playmakers, and LaVar is capable of doing that for us and capable of making big plays," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "So, hey, as we head down the road here that was really encouraging for us, and LaVar knows that and you can pick up in his comments or when you talk to him -- the things that are said -- you pick up that he is working extremely hard and I think it's showing up in the plays he's making on the field."
Arrington tied for the team lead with six tackles Sunday, and his presence adds defensive balance. Opponents had been targeting the weak side for big running plays, and essentially avoiding Pro Bowl linebacker Marcus Washington on the strong side, but Arrington's big-play prowess can be a deterrent. "When you have someone like LaVar on the other side who can make big plays and is another presence out there, that gives me a chance to get a little more action my way," Washington said. "I don't get so bored over there."
Linebackers coach Dale Lindsey praised Arrington's dedication and said he is looking for improvement from week to week. He wants Arrington to get to the point where he is so at ease in the defense that he does not have to think about positioning or execution.
"That's when you see a guy who is physically at his best," Lindsey said. "I thought he did a good job [Sunday] and gave us a good effort, and for the most part he had good recall about what he's supposed to do and where he's supposed to line up. I just think if he continues to work at it, it will continue to get better."
Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, said Arrington may have had his best practice yet yesterday. "His confidence is rising right now," Williams said. "You see that in-line burst when he can run people down from behind. Those are the things you can't coach. You either have it or you don't."
Arrington's zeal to return to the field has been contagious. Seeing him in the starting lineup gave the entire unit a lift, players said. "He helped our team morale just to have him out there with the kind of enthusiasm he has," safety Ryan Clark said. "Sometimes people look at players and say, 'Oh, he's big-headed,' and this and that. But he just wanted to play and it really showed and he enjoyed himself and had a great time and it rubbed off on us."
"It was a quick move," said middle linebacker Lemar Marshall, who thought that Arrington and Holdman would rotate Sunday. "It shocked us, but he did a heck of a job. When he was out there he played like the old No. 11 at Penn State."
That collegiate spirit is precisely what Arrington wants to recreate. He addressed the defense Saturday during a team meeting, thanking teammates for their support and urging them to remember their original passion for the game, when they played without compensation. He told them to forget individual gain, and disregard whether he would be starting. "It's not about me," Arrington said he told the players. "It's about this team." The speech left some teammates saying they had difficultly sleeping, and by the following evening it appeared that the controversy over Arrington's playing time was finally over.
"It was one of those things that happened, and it happened the way it happened, and you can't go back on it," Arrington said of his benching. "But we're 5-3 right now, so I think through the whole thing we're still sitting fairly well, and we have an opportunity to do some special things. So it didn't hurt us too bad if it was a distraction, hopefully."