Monday, June 18, 2007

Outside the Aviary: The Rise and Fall of Lavar Arrington

Lavar Arrington's motorcycle accident is the punctuation at the end of his career. A man once worth millions and lauded as one of the premier linebackers in the NFL became a mirage-- a wild card from play-to-play for all the wrong reasons. With the Washington Redskins, his erratic style translated well for years. His occasional missed assignment or overrun play were worth the sacks and general excitement when he made a big hit. Then as the quotient of bad plays increased, the injuries mounted and the affability faded, the Redskins fans didn't bat an eyelash when he asked to be released. Certainly, this was a long fall for the face of the franchise a few years earlier.

Signed by the New York "football" Giants, their fans learned quickly that he was not a force anymore. His interviews were the most entertaining aspect of his New York days-- leaning on crutches or lambasting coaches for his declining importance in the defense-- the idea that he was ever really great was hard to believe.

He was great though. He was the face of a defense. He was a disrupting force that coaches had to scheme around constantly. If he was easily fooled from time to time, he made up for it. I remember watching him and thinking he could be, if Marvin Lewis stayed on, the best linebacker in the NFC--maybe the NFL-- for years to come. Of course, this was the hope of every Washington fan. It was not a smart move to invest so much in him-- so much of my affection for the past few Redskins' teams was based on the hope that Arrington would anchor a Lewis-esque defense once again.

When Gregg Williams marched the cover-two into town, Arrington was all but finished in most people's eyes. I still held out hope that he could contribute. When he came back from injury in his last year in Washington, I watched and waited for his impact. He recorded two or three great games-- coming off the bench in a Joe Gibbs/Wlliams' inspired ploy to see of they could get anything from him before casting him off to free-agency. When he was released, I wasn't surprised, but I was sad to see him go nonetheless.

I always wondered if he ever got used to the idea that he wasn't the best player on the field after he started to decline. Each play was a fifty-fifty chance instead of a big play possibility. After the foul-ups and missed tackles, I wondered if he didn't get up and decide that mistakes were just a part of the game. Conjecture, rather than confusion, seemed to rule his style. He believed that he was bigger than a scheme, better than the other team and more important than the play itself. All the while, it was impossible to cheer against him, yet futile to cheer for him.

I had a modicum of hope when he went to the Giants. I wanted him to succeed while the rest of the team failed (NFC East rivals, you know), but the spark and the desire were marred by injury, freelancing style mistakes and a sense that he started to understand that he had to become a role player. The Giants released him in the offseason this year, and I thought sure he would find a new system to inhabit-- even if a backup. I searched around as recently as a few weeks ago to see if he had been picked up-- maybe a Cincinnati (with all their arrests) or maybe an injury made him valuable enough. He was a former All-Pro and a great teammate (or so I heard, anyway), he was worth a gamble, right? Alas, he was still a free-agent when I searched and he is still a free-agent after his accident.

Like many, I saw the rumors of a one-year contract with the Redskins in April. I was happy to see the interest. Arrington, as a back-up, would have a nice moment walking back out in Redskins' colors. Still, there would be that lingering possibility of him re-emrging as a quality linebacker-- the fan-favorite with a perfectly placed mean streak. However assanine it may have been, I had hope. That ended today, as if it was not already dead, with his accident.

I'm glad to see he's safe, but part of me wants to ignore this story and remember the day I was a lot younger and more excitable about the kid from Penn State about to come and destroy the NFC East. Part of me wants to believe he is only now getting to the point that he doesn't have the wheels or the will to be amongst the great linebackers in the league. As of today, I have to stop ignoring that part of me and come to the realization trhat one of my favorite players is not only (all-but) retired, but lucky to be alive. Godspeed, Lavar. It's a shame you won't be around anymore, but a relief to see you survived. On a smaller scale, I felt the same way when you went to the Giants, and I was hoping to feel the same way again this year. The rise and fall of a superstar is a weird thing to watch.


Special Agent Dale Cooper said...

The career of LaVar Arrington makes me want to cry, and that is not an exaggeration at all. I come close to tearing up when I think what could have been. As a Penn State graduate and someone who was in Beaver Stadium when he did the famous "LaVar leap" against Illinois, I can tell everyone that Arrington was hands down the BEST linebacker I've ever seen. Paul Poszlusny, as amazing as he was the last two years at Penn State, isn't fit to hold Arrington's jock strap. That's how fucking good Arrington was. He was a monster in college, destroying the Big Ten. He had the most athleticism of any linebacker since Lawrence Taylor, and I firmly believed he was going to be the next LT. I've seen Arrington leap and clear over standing men on a football field (as against Ohio State in 99) to make a play. He was so like LT in the way you described because he did make mistakes, but his big play ability and athleticism covered for those mistakes. He could have been one of the greatest if not for the injuries and idiot defensive coordinators who didn't know how to utilize his talent. Arrington's tale is a sad one indeed.

Anonymous said...

During a PSU game while Arrington was there, they ran a piece about his father, a Vietnam vet who had lost his feet in the war, and how he taught Lavar to play football despite this impediment. Then they mentioned it over and over (and over and over) again during the game. Ever since then, whenever Arrington comes up, I have felt obligated to say: Did you know his dad has no feet?

Gabe said...

Very well said.

There was a point, after I realized he wasn't going to be the Redskins answer to LT, that I just wished him well, because he was so likable.

Sadly his career never came together. I wish him a speedy recovery. Indeed it's been very strange watching his rise and fall.

Anonymous said...

Well I guess you could still say that he destroyed the NFC East since two teams wasted valuable cash and cap space by paying him more than he was worth. For every highlight real play there was always two or three bad ones where he was way out of position.

Anonymous said...

LaVar was a great athlete, but his biggest problem was an ego that got in the way of whatever intelligence he has. He thought he was good enough to buck his D-Coordinator's schemes and freelance. Then he got burned repeatedly for big plays. He thought he was good enough to pull a Barry Bonds, opt out of the group licensing deal, and make his own marketing deals. He cost himself millions in jersey sales and endorsements.

I was hoping he'd make a comeback, but it looks like he's done. Hopefully he'll recover and get back on the field. I'd still love to see him make one more tackle in a Skins uniform.

gibbs12 said...

Hilarious tag selection.

Samuel said...

Not only was Lavar a force on the field, but an incredible guy off the field. A friend of mine who works at Children' Hospital told me that all the D.C. area athletes come in to pose with sick children, but Lavar is the only guy who comes in regularly, unannounced, without cameras. She said he is one of the few who actually cares. I hope he comes back from the injury to dominate with the Redskins like he once did, but I know that will never happen. But I am sure he will continue visiting the sick kids at Children's Hospital.

Anonymous said...

back when I went to U of Illinois, there was one play I'll always remember: at the snap, before they could react, he jumped OVER our offensive line in order to sack whatever shitty QB we had in at that point. I hated him from then on.

Run Up The Score! said...

As a lifelong Penn Stater, watching LaVar was an exercise in frustration and hope. He was always -- always -- three times the athlete of anyone else on the field in college. Wasn't even a debate. I had high hopes for him in the NFL, even though he ended up on teams that had to play my dear Eagles twice a year.

He'll be an absolute joy to watch if he decides to go into broadcasting. Glad he's (kind of) okay following the accident.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only person that thinks he could have made a very good defensive end in the NFL?

I am pretty sure he had some time at DE in the past, but I always had the feeling that he would make a very good DE (one of the main reasons I always thought this was because it is a much easier position to learn. LaVar wouldn't be able to screw up an assignment at DE considering he would be doing the same thing 50% of the time... even if he couldn't learn how to play that, he could have at least been a situational pass rusher, which means he would have to learn absolutely nothing except, "Go kill the QB").

Phony Gwynn said...

I was all set to praise this piece until I realized you misspelled "aviary."

Did you go to the state schools of either Oregon or Mississippi?

OK, sorry. Good look, son. Good look.

Business or Leisure? said...

Damn. I only spelled it right the first fifty times I wrote for this site.

Hater in the house.