- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2002

HONOLULU When the Washington Redskins made three blockbuster trades in 1999 and 2000 for draft picks that yielded linebacker LaVar Arrington, offensive lineman Chris Samuels and cornerback Champ Bailey, local fans had every right to be skeptical. The Redskins had spent much of the 1990s suffering with high-round disappointments like Heath Shuler and Michael Westbrook.

But when Arrington, Samuels and Bailey step onto the field at Aloha Stadium for today's Pro Bowl, their status as franchise cornerstones and bona fide stars will be confirmed.

Arrington, who has emerged as the Redskins' de facto leader on and off the field, will start at outside linebacker for the NFC in his first trip to the Pro Bowl. Samuels, also making his Pro Bowl debut, will start at tackle. And Bailey, returning to Hawaii after starting last year's game, will back up Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber and St. Louis' Aeneas Williams. Bailey was originally an alternate selection, but Philadelphia's Troy Vincent bowed out because of an injury.

"To be recognized as one of the best in your sport, to be around all these big names, to be here after just my second year, it's absolutely amazing," Arrington said. "A lot of guys simply don't get this opportunity, and all three of us, I think, had good years and did everything we could. It's very important to us, and the Redskins franchise, to be noticed for that."

Arrington and Bailey both arrived in Washington via former general manager Charley Casserly's stockpiling of draft picks from high-profile 1999 trades with New Orleans and Chicago. The No. 3 pick in 2000 was used for Samuels after a similarly monumental swap with San Francisco.

All three were decidedly raw in their early days as Redskins, particularly the exuberant, high-energy Arrington, who was prone to foolish penalties during his rookie season in 2000.

But even amid the team's revolving door that ultimately saw four head coaches in 13 months, Arrington, Bailey and Samuels each took significant steps forward in 2001. Now, along with running back Stephen Davis, they form the center of the Redskins' talent base.

Arrington made a team-high 82 tackles, 73 of them solo, and started Washington's dramatic recovery from an 0-5 start with a game-winning interception return for a touchdown against Carolina. The 6-foot-5, 303-pound Samuels led a surprisingly strong offensive line that allowed Davis to set another team rushing record.

And though Bailey by most accounts played slightly better in 2000 than in 2001 and picked off two fewer passes in his second season, he played an entire season for the first time lined up against the opposition's best receiver.

"It was definitely a tougher year in that regard. You have to be prepared to get beat sometimes," Bailey said. "But it's kind of tough to be in a Pro Bowl year-in, year-out without playing the best. Only three [cornerbacks per conference] come here, so to be one of those is definitely an honor."

Philadelphia coach Andy Reid, who will lead the NFC squad today, counts the Redskins' Pro Bowl trio among the most difficult in the league to plan against.

"They each gave us some headaches this year, no question," Reid said. "They present a lot of problems. Champ is one of the best, if not the best corner in the league now, and Chris and LaVar, you just knew coming out of college they would be very, very good football players. It's been very impressive to see their maturation and how quickly they've come along."

Arrington, Samuels and Bailey arrived to Hawaii on Monday, and Bailey has spent part of the week showing his two teammates around and counseling them on the more laid-back nature of the Pro Bowl. While some element of conference rivalry exists between the NFC and AFC, this is an exhibition game, and not getting anyone hurt is a goal. A steady morning rain yesterday canceled the NFC's final practice.

"The game is still competitive, but we're all essentially here to have a good time," Bailey said. "It's a trip I'd like to get used to."

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