- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

LaVar Arrington just shook his head at the prospect, refusing to embrace the unprecedented gift that seems all but certain to be bestowed on him this offseason.

The Washington Redskins linebacker hasn’t had continuity on defense since he was drafted second overall in 2000. Every year he has had a new defensive coordinator, and all too frequently there have been major changes to the starting lineup.

So when asked about the high likelihood of the coming offseason’s building, rather than rebuilding, the Pro Bowl linebacker sounded afraid to even contemplate the prospect.

“We’ll wait and see, man,” Arrington said glumly. “With everything I’ve been through, I’m going to wait and see.”

Arrington’s apprehension notwithstanding, the Redskins finally appear set to end a string of five straight overhauls on defense. After hiring a new coordinator each offseason since 2000 and undergoing as much personnel turnover as any club in the NFL, the Redskins seem ready to embrace some much-needed continuity.

Already talks to extend the contracts of two starters, cornerback Fred Smoot and middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, are in advanced stages. And the only other pending free agent in the starting lineup, nose tackle Joe Salave’a, should return fairly cheaply.

On the coaching staff, defensive line coach Greg Blache was wooed by Notre Dame but withdrew from consideration at his alma mater. And assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams, while not certain to remain out of the NFL head coaching ranks, appears likely to stick around for at least one more year.

Thus the unit, already having jelled quickly and risen to No.2 among the NFL’s 32 defenses, has a chance to get even better by remaining almost totally intact.

“That’s the first step,” Smoot said. “You get your group, you see how they play, and now the big point — you see who you want to keep. This will be the first year we have the same coach coming back, a lot of the same players, and that’s all the difference when it comes to winning games in December and November.”

Players have griped openly about the lack of continuity in Washington, where owner Dan Snyder’s drive to win and willingness to spend liberally has led to big new plans each offseason. Former Redskins cornerback Champ Bailey became so frustrated by the constant turnover that he viewed his trade to the Denver Broncos last spring as something of a reprieve.

Many observers around the NFL, meanwhile, wonder how good a player like Arrington would be if he had been in the same defensive system for five straight years.

Although Arrington, who has missed much of this season with an injured knee, has made highlight reel plays and reached three Pro Bowls, he also has blown assignments conspicuously and at times frustrated coaches with his freelancing tendencies and unwillingness to be used in certain ways.

Defensive end Renaldo Wynn, a seven-year veteran who has spent the past three years in Washington, believes young players are particularly hampered by the constant changes.

“I guess it drains you,” Wynn said. “There’s so much that goes into it every year when you have a new coaching staff.”

The biggest issue, according to Blache, is terminology. Each staff uses slightly different names for plays and techniques, and a change can leave a player thinking a bit too much and not acting instinctively. Next year, Blache said, the Redskins’ defense is “going to grow.”

“One thing, the guys will know us better next year,” Blache said. “They’ll understand the system better next year. They’ll continue to grow. I think you’ll find that certain guys’ production will increase only because they’ll be much more confident in what’s required of them.”

A total return of Washington’s defensive personnel is “unrealistic,” Blache said, but the club could come pretty close. Its willingness to open negotiations early with Smoot and Pierce, both of whom have been in discussions for more than a month, should lessen the likelihood those players will test free agency March2. Pierce, in fact, could sign in coming days.

Beyond the starting lineup, the Redskins have key reserves like Brandon Noble, Walt Harris, Ryan Clark and Jermaine Haley locked up for 2005. The club’s restricted free agents include linebacker Lemar Marshall, defensive end Demetric Evans and safety Andre Lott. Joining Smoot, Pierce and Salave’a among the pending unrestricted players are defensive end Ron Warner and safety Todd Franz.

Williams, meanwhile, seems unlikely to secure the type of head coaching opportunity that would make him want to leave Washington, where he has a lucrative contract, autonomy on defense, heavy influence in personnel and hope for the future.

“I hope to be here for a long, long, long time,” Williams said. “We’ve got a lot of business that hasn’t been taken care of.”

There is little doubt the emphasis on continuity stems from coach Joe Gibbs, who has talked for months about finding “core Redskins” and building around them. Although there was speculation when Gibbs returned from 11 years of retirement that he was seeking a quick fix, he continually has emphasized his commitment to growing the organization organically.

On defense, continuity is particularly important. Not only have these players been subjected to constant change, but the unit’s toughness and modesty have become perhaps the defining characteristics of the entire team.

“I think [that’s true],” Smoot said. “Once we keep those core guys there, that mentality will always be there.”

Arrington, though, isn’t quite ready to embrace this new world order. He only can dream that defensive continuity finally has arrived.

“It would be great,” he admitted. “I’ve got to see it. It would be real nice to get back to a situation like that.”

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