Several knee injuries kept Warrick Holdman out of action in his first seven NFL seasons. But not once in the 82 games he was available to play was he relegated to the bench.
But his status changed last November when the Washington Redskins played Philadelphia. Holdman had lost his starting weak-side linebacker job to LaVar Arrington and wasn't playing special teams. He was a player without a role.
"When things aren't going right or things get hard, I remember that night and just standing there watching the whole game," Holdman said of the Redskins' 17-10 win over the Eagles. "I felt like, 'I'm not really doing anything to help the team. What reason would they have to bring me back?' But they gave me a second chance."
When Holdman received a second chance, it surprised many observers. But he took advantage of it, and it has been one of the Redskins' defensive bright spots through three games.
Holdman is third on the team, behind Lemar Marshall and Adam Archuleta, with 18 tackles. In 14 games last season, including seven starts, Holdman managed only 23 tackles.
Not bad for a player who entered the season as a fall-back option because the Redskins didn't pursue a big-money linebacker and is a temporary starter until rookie Rocky McIntosh is ready.
"It just goes with him being more comfortable," fellow outside linebacker Marcus Washington said. "This is his second year [with the Redskins]. He understands this defense better, and it's showing."
Said assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams: "He's in better shape and more ballistic, more quick in his movements and he's really played stout at the point of attack. He gives a lot more flexibility there, so we're coming up with more packages to use him in."
Holdman, 30, said the key to his increased production is simple: He's not over-thinking.
"Now I'm just playing," he said. "Last year, all I was thinking about was -- don't mess up. Remember to do this, this and this. Now on a play, it's -- let's shoot through this gap and get the tackle. I know when I'm trying to do that, I'm not hurting the defense."
Washington can relate. Signed before the 2004 season, he spent months trying to learn the intricacies of Williams' system. But he had the benefit of an entire offseason.
"The longer you're in this defense, the less thinking you have to do -- you can just react," Washington said. "This is a pretty in-depth system and once you finally learn it, then you have to be able to execute everything to make plays."
Holdman got a late start to preparing for the 2005 season and it cost him. He played for Redskins assistants Greg Blache and Dale Lindsey in Chicago and was in Cleveland in 2004 before signing with the Redskins the following May. When training camp started, Holdman hoped he could ease into things -- learn the system, get into better shape and play behind Arrington.
But Arrington's balky knee forced Holdman into the fire from the opening week of the preseason.
"Trying to do all of that at the same time was hard, but this is the NFL and I was a veteran, so it was my job to get it right and I really didn't do it last year," Holdman said.
Holdman started the first seven games, never recording more than five tackles even though teams were running in his direction. Once Arrington was out of Lindsey's doghouse, he reclaimed his starting spot.
At the end of last season, it was almost a forgone conclusion that Holdman wouldn't return. But then the Redskins and Arrington cut ties, and they were unable to find a suitable replacement via free agency. The team drafted McIntosh, who while a future starter, still requires seasoning.
Holdman re-signed in mid-April and withstood challenges from McIntosh (who has played limited snaps on defense) and Chris Clemons (who was released).
"It's [gratifying] because guys don't get many second shots in the NFL," Holdman said. "Usually teams will move on and get another guy and in a sense they did with Rocky, but I'm determined to play well this year."