- The Washington Times - Friday, December 5, 2003

So far, so good for Darrell Russell.

Off the field, the defensive tackle with the controversial past has kept a low profile since signing with the Washington Redskins in late October. And on the field, he has steadily boosted his conditioning and play, flashing a bit of his Pro Bowl form in last weekend’s loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Now Russell could be headed for a breakout game against the New York Giants. Although he remains behind Bernard Holsey for the starting “three-technique” tackle spot on the outside edge of the guard, Russell’s improving play could pay off big against the Giants’ depleted interior line tomorrow at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

“We’ll see what happens,” Russell said yesterday. “My playing time varies. It just depends on how [coaches] feel. … Hopefully we can take advantage of the weak point [the Giants] have right now.”

And what a weak point it is. After yielding six sacks in a loss to Buffalo last weekend, the Giants figure to start rookie right guard David Diehl and unheralded second-year left guard Scott Peters. Peters replaces rookie Wayne Lucier, who was lost to a knee injury last week. And because the other line spots also have shuffled personnel, it has been difficult for veterans to compensate for the guards’ inexperience.

Although Russell still isn’t at his best, he has shown glimpses of what made him the second overall pick in the 1997 draft and what got him 191/2 sacks and a pair of Pro Bowl invitations in 1998 and 1999: the ability to “wreak havoc in the backfield,” as Redskins defensive end Renaldo Wynn put it.

“I thought last week he played his best game, no question,” defensive line coach Robert Nunn said. “He started to show some signs of getting the timing back and getting into a little bit of a rhythm. He still needs to work on getting in better playing shape. But he’s showing signs of improvement.”

With Russell, though, it’s not just about his play. He came to the Redskins after being suspended for 11/2 seasons, the result of a positive drug test and 25 felony charges — all eventually dropped — for drugging a woman and videotaping two friends assaulting her.

People outside the organization, as well as some players within it, questioned whether the Redskins should have pursued Russell so ardently. They wondered what type of influence he would be.

Five weeks later, the early reviews are positive.

“So far, what I’ve seen, he’s been a good guy,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “It’s hard to say. You can’t really judge anybody after a couple weeks. But from what I’ve seen, he’s been good.”

Said Nunn: “To my knowledge, he’s fit in fine. From a coaching standpoint, he has not been a disruption.”

Russell, asked if he has left his past behavior in his past, had an interesting reply.

“At this point, everything that I’ve learned, it’s taking that wisdom and applying it to my life from here on out,” Russell said. “So it’s not really behind me — it will always be with me. But it makes me a wiser person.”

The other big question about Russell regarded his tardiness for team meetings in Oakland. Nunn called Russell’s dedication in Washington “solid,” albeit apparently not perfect.

“It’s been good,” Nunn said. “He’s had a couple times [where he slipped up], but overall it’s been good. I think he’s committed to trying to come back. He’s got to continue to do that over time. If he does that, it’ll work out for him. It’s been solid.”

Russell said being on time is “definitely” a focus in his new NFL life.

“One thing I don’t want to be is late, because I had such a problem with it the last time,” he said. “It was all my fault. It’s a rut I don’t want to go back into.”

The last four games will give the Redskins an idea what they might expect from Russell in 2004. This week he said he will give Washington “the first crack” at signing him long term, and vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato indicated the club is interested in retaining Russell.

What Washington is seeking is the type of dominant defensive tackle Russell was in the late 1990s and Daryl Gardener was for the Redskins last season. The Redskins hope it is without the off-field troubles that both of those players have encountered.

Proof that Russell has mended his ways can come only over the long term, but proof that he can “wreak havoc” on the football field just might come tomorrow.

“Some of [Russell’s effectiveness last weekend] didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but he got some good push inside, he held some double-teams, squeezed the pocket, did the things we’re asking him to do,” Nunn said. “If he can build off that, it’s going to naturally happen, because he is such a talent.”

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