- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 5, 2004

Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington feels so confident about his team’s potential this season that he issued a challenge to fans yesterday as final preparations began for the Sept.12 opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Just 12 hours after the Redskins dismantled the Atlanta Falcons 27-0 in both teams’ preseason finale, Arrington pointed to the less than capacity crowd at FedEx Field (announced as 72,892) and called on fans to bring back the atmosphere of coach Joe Gibbs’ first era.

“I feel so good about this team, I’m personally challenging the fans,” Arrington said. “I saw a lot of empty seats last night. We talk about having the greatest fans in the world. … I think about RFK. You hear all the stories about the stands shaking. It was a horrible place for teams to come in and play. I think this is the year the fans really need to be a part of it. If you don’t want to come, give your tickets to somebody else.”

Alas, not every Redskin is quite as confident as Arrington on the eve of Gibbs’ return to regular-season play. As Washington exits a 3-2 preseason in which it sandwiched an embarrassing defeat (28-3 at St. Louis) between two blowout wins (combined 44-0 over Miami and Atlanta), a number of players and coaches seem to agree that this club has a good foundation but no assurances of success.

“You’re starting to get a good feel for it,” nose tackle Brandon Noble said. “It’s a good team. It’s a good group of guys. We work really hard — that’s the biggest thing. The guys go out every day and really put in a full day’s work on the field and in the meeting rooms. That’s a good start.”

The Redskins yesterday turned their full attention to the Bucs by meeting in the afternoon and holding a brief walk-through. Coaches and the personnel staff then met into the night to determine final cuts. Today, 23 mostly young and unheralded players will be shed to meet the final 53-player limit.

Among those on the bubble are a trio of running backs — John Simon, Sultan McCullough and Rock Cartwright, who appear to be fighting for one spot. Players like wide receiver Gari Scott and cornerbacks Rufus Brown and Garnell Wilds are hoping special teams potential lands them a coveted place on the roster.

With players like McCullough, Scott and Brown garnering much of the playing time in recent weeks, and with coaches using complex schemes only in limited doses, it has been difficult to get a true read on the potential of a team that finished 5-11 under Steve Spurrier last season.

Arrington, for one, was still excited after chasing Falcons star quarterback Michael Vick from the game in just five plays. The Pro Bowl linebacker sounded ready to book a flight to Jacksonville, Fla., site of February’s Super Bowl XXXIX.

“I felt this way about my high school team when I was a freshman, and we went undefeated,” Arrington said. “It’s been a long time, but I do know what it’s like to be on a championship team. We have that feel. It’s a special feeling.”

But it’s also a feeling that Arrington, who has yet to finish above .500 in the NFL, has had before. This time, he believes there’s a difference.

“In years past, you’re always optimistic about what the season might hold, but you’re unsure,” Arrington explained. “I don’t feel unsure. Now what may happen, may happen. We may be worse than we were in years past. But I just don’t feel it.”

Arrington’s excitement notwithstanding, this club heads into the season with several key questions answered and a number of others remaining.

Among the resolved issues:

• Rookie safety Sean Taylor is an impact player (he intercepted three passes and forced two fumbles in the preseason).

• Assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams will run an aggressive, most likely successful unit (it finished ninth in the NFL in exhibition play).

• Assistant head coach for offense Joe Bugel will protect quarterback Mark Brunell (Washington yielded a league-low three sacks, despite playing five games).

But among the lingering questions:

• Can Brunell, who never shined in preseason play, perform at a level higher than simply “efficient?”

• Will the combination of suspect pass rush and potentially average cornerback play undo the defense?

• Can middle linebacker Mike Barrow, who didn’t play in any of the five exhibitions, get healthy? Head trainer Bubba Tyer said last night that Barrow, sidelined with tendinitis just above his knee, would “work some in practice” in coming days and that the team would decide on his status for the Bucs game late in the week.

The Redskins hope such questions aren’t too significant and that Gibbs’ first season back can yield a playoff berth. In a week, they’ll start learning for certain.

“I don’t think we have major issues,” safety Matt Bowen said. “I think we have things to fine-tune. If you have major issues now, you might be in trouble. We have things that we just need to fine-tune and perfect for Sunday.”

Note — Taylor, who took a helmet to the thigh Friday night, has only a “mild bruise,” according to Tyer, and should play next weekend. The Redskins also expect left tackle Chris Samuels (ankle) and right guard Randy Thomas (neck) to practice this week and play against the Bucs.


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