- The Washington Times - Friday, September 10, 2004

The lasting image of the Washington Redskins’ preseason finale (if such a thing is possible) was that of LaVar Arrington ransacking a befuddled Michael Vick and forcing the Atlanta quarterback to fumble away the ball.

Yes, it came in an exhibition game, and, yes, everyone cautions against reading too much into those. But Arrington’s sack-and-fumble did provide a brief glimpse into the Redskins’ new-look defense and revealed how Gregg Williams’ decision to move the Pro Bowl linebacker from the strong side to the weak side could produce dramatic results this season.

“I think I got into the backfield more in [three defensive] series than I have in probably a half a season in some of the systems I’ve been in,” said Arrington, who also pressured Vick on an earlier play in last Friday’s game. “So it’s definitely making a difference.”

The Redskins seem to concur with Arrington’s sentiments. Said one club official this week: “Thank God they finally figured out where to play LaVar.”

It took four years and four defensive coordinators, each with his own vision how best to use Arrington, before one decided the best place for this rare specimen of a football player was the same place where he became a star in college.

“There have been all kinds of critiques and questions — ‘Why isn’t he doing the things he did when he was at Penn State?’” Arrington said. “It’s a simple answer: I wasn’t at the same position. Now I’m at the same position.”

Though it seems like an insignificant shift — maybe no more than 15 feet to the left or the right — there’s a world of difference between the two positions.

“When you’re at strong side, you’re always on the tight end, so you’re always going to have a guy right in your face,” said Washington’s Antonio Pierce, who is versed in all three linebacker positions. “Playing weak side, you can roam a little bit more and have more opportunities to make open-field plays.”

That would seem to play right into Arrington’s strengths. His skills appear better maximized when he has room to run.

“What are the two things LaVar does best? Rush the passer and chase down ball carriers from across the field,” the club official said. “What’s the one thing he can’t do? Defend a guy who’s right in front of him.”

It all seems to make so much sense, which begs the question: How come it took so long for the Redskins to figure that out?

“You know, if I had the answer to that, I think I’d be so much better off,” said Arrington, who spent the last four years wavering between whole-hearted support and downright outrage over Washington’s ever-changing defensive schemes and the way they affected him.

“But I think it’s made me a better person,” he continued. “Five years later, I think I’m ready to be in a scheme that may bring me to a point where people may really start to recognize how I play.”

Arrington, 26, also may be at a point where he’s ready for the leadership role many around the Redskins expected him to assume some time ago. The new coaches rave about his attentive and inquisitive nature in the classroom. Teammates notice a more mature player on and off the field.

“I think LaVar is focusing more,” Pierce said. “He knows exactly what he needs to do and how to put himself in the right positions. He’s asking questions. He wants to get a better feel for everything.”

As always with Arrington, though, there are skeptics. This isn’t the first time he’s gone into a season gushing with enthusiasm and insisting that “things are going to be different this year.”

There also are those who wonder whether Arrington will be able to maintain his focus as his Nov.2 contract dispute hearing draws nearer. (He claims the club shortchanged him $6.5million in the multiyear extension he signed late last year.)

For now, Arrington is showing no signs of discontent. He has embraced the new coaches and was thrilled when told how they planned to use him — even if it’s as a down lineman in nickel defenses, a role Arrington complained about under then-coordinator Marvin Lewis in 2002.

“He’s been very positive,” linebackers coach Dale Lindsey said. “I think he just wants to play on a winning team. Guys like that don’t care where they play; they just want to play. And that’s the way he feels right now.”

Arrington is all smiles these days, joking with players during practices, hamming it up for TV cameras during interviews. He knows the season hasn’t even begun, and he knows how quickly things can sour.

But for now all is well in LaVar’s world.

“I feel pretty good about the situation I’m in and the team is in,” he said. “It’s really the first time in my career in the NFL where I’m actually comfortable with the system.”

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