- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 4, 2003

A personal grudge, a limited understanding of Marvin Lewis’ defense, “Monday Night Football” and $36million got all mixed up at FedEx Field on Sept.16, 2002, and led to a mortifying night for Washington Redskins linebacker Jeremiah Trotter.

Huge expectations surrounded Trotter’s reunion with his former team, the Philadelphia Eagles. And the Redskins were 1-0 under new coach Steve Spurrier, whose resume made anything seem possible.

Instead, nothing went right. Philadelphia scored on six of its first seven possessions. Trotter blew assignments as he tried stick it to the Eagles. Pepper spray was unleashed in the stands. Embarrassment filled every Redskin, and flooded Trotter.

“Man, that was almost as bad as getting hurt, when I blew my knee out [in November],” Trotter recalled this week. “That was a game I really, really wanted. Maybe I wanted it too bad.”

Not this time, he repeatedly has vowed. Although the sting still lingers, and although tomorrow’s game at Lincoln Financial Field will be his first in Philadelphia as a visiting player (he missed the Dec.15 rematch after rupturing his knee Thanksgiving Day), Trotter swears this meeting is nothing special.

And this time, after half-heartedly pitching similar cliches last September, he actually sounds like he means it.

“It’s just another game for me,” Trotter said. “I want to win every game, but my main concern is playing the best I can play, leaving it all on the field, trying to help the guys around me. I think if you do that, everything will take care of itself.”

As much as overenthusiasm was a problem for Trotter that night, even more damaging was his fleeting grasp of Lewis’ defense.

He wasn’t the only one who struggled with that. Lewis demanded that players stick to their responsibilities and held them to a high standard of comprehension. The defense struggled badly in Weeks 2 and 3 before regrouping, improving as the year progressed and finishing with the NFL’s No.4 ranking.

Against the Eagles, Trotter was ripped by some for freelancing, a criticism he absorbed frequently in Philadelphia. But yesterday he swore that he did little if any freelancing last season.

“It may have looked like we were freelancing — that was probably because we didn’t know what we were doing,” Trotter said with a laugh.

Resolving the question might depend on the definition. In the opinion of Trotter and fellow linebacker Jessie Armstead, it’s not really freelancing if a player breaks from the scheme to anticipate a play he saw on film or earlier in the game.

“You understand that the odds are better for you to make that play than not make that play,” Armstead said. “Freelancing, you just don’t care. You’re going to take yours.”

So did Trotter freelance against the Eagles?

“I don’t think he freelanced, but he may have went on more hunches than he [should have],” Armstead said with a smile.

New defensive coordinator George Edwards seemed to have the best explanation.

“I think a part of it is, anytime you change how someone is expected to play day in and day out, they get into an area where they’re not comfortable,” Edwards said. “And when something bad happens, the easiest thing to do is to [revert] to the way you were successful before.”

In Philadelphia, Trotter was told to run to the ball and make tackles. In Washington, Lewis often wanted him to hold a position and “spill” the ball to other defenders, a tenet that remains in essence. As the season progressed, Trotter made significant strides.

Now Trotter is playing solid football. Although he still isn’t making many big plays (save a crucial third-and-1 stop in the opening win over the Jets), he leads the Redskins with 34 tackles and seems to be getting more comfortable.

“I think he’s been very solid, very productive for us,” Edwards said. “He’s been very accountable in the middle. I think he’s a lot more comfortable in his reads and his keys. He’s been what we’ve asked and what we thought he was going to be.”

The main concern remains Trotter’s right knee, which suffered multiple ligament tears and still gets very sore in the days after games. Last week he skipped a day of practice.

“I’m just so excited now to get on the football field,” Trotter said. “When you go through a serious injury like I did and you get back on the field, it just makes you thankful.”

In that manner, Trotter seems to have his priorities better organized now than last September, when everything got so confused and then went so bad.

“He was distraught,” Armstead said. “This year, he’s just looking at it as another hard game he’s got to fight in. He’s not looking at it as a personal vendetta.”

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