He's Ba-ack!

IRVING, TX. - Something was missing the last time the Cowboys faced the Washington Redskins.

The bigger-than-life head coaches stalked the sidelines, the passes and catches were there, the runs were there, and the tackles were there -- or at least most of them. Washington linebacker LaVar Arrington hardly played in Washington's last-minute win over the Cowboys Sept. 19 at Texas Stadium. He wasn't hurt, he wasn't in trouble off the field, and he wasn't holding out for more money. The most talented player on the Redskin defense was, basically, benched.

The reason for the curious defensive rotation in Washington's first five games was unclear. He and the team reported his health was fine. There were reports that he was miffed over a clause for a roster bonus that was left out of the contract extension he signed over the offseason, but the team insisted that the contract had nothing to do with his playing time, or lack thereof, and pointed out that he didn't have to sign it, and that if he had any beef, it was with his agent, not the team. The official company line that was used to explain his absence was that he was undisciplined in practice, a freelancing maverick defender who didn't fit defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' rigid defensive style. Many -- Arrington, Washington fans, media in the city and around the country -- had a hard time swallowing that explanation. Arrington is a physical freak, a 6-foot-3, 255-pound specimen with the strength of a lineman, the speed of a running back and the overall athleticism of a small forward. The man who ended Troy Aikman's career with a clean-but-brutal hit sat idly by while the Cowboys dominated the first 56 minutes of the teams' first meeting, getting on the field for just a handful of plays.

While the scrutiny intensified, Arrington played the role perfectly for the media. He smiled for cameras, spewed appropriate rhetoric in the media by saying he'd do whatever the team needed to win, that he respected the coaches' decisions and that he'd be ready when called upon. He seemed almost like a Boy Scout who was being punished for good behavior. Those who know him, however, described Arrington as a ferocious competitor who was being torn up by watching Warrick Holdman start in his regular spot.

Finally, the coaches gave in. After rare appearances through the team's first five games, Arrington "showed enough discipline in practice" to earn considerable playing time in the Redskins' demolition of the San Francisco 49ers Oct. 23. The Redskins' defense, already one of the better units in the NFL, got better.

"He puts a whole different dimension in their defense," Dallas tight end Dan Campbell said. "He can be anywhere in the defense, because he can do everything. He can play the run, he can rush the passer, he can drop into coverage. You never know where he's going to line up, or how he's going to come at you.

"Sometimes, it seems like he doesn't even know where he's supposed to be. That's a little dangerous, because he's such an amazing athlete he can be out of position and still make plays."

Campbell said that Arrington's freelance style makes him among the toughest defenders in the NFL to block.

"Because he's so fast, and so strong, you really can't assume he's going to do a certain thing on a certain play," Campbell said. "It's almost like you have to assume he'll be everywhere on every play."

Reports out of Washington say that the Redskins' top three cornerbacks -- Shawn Springs, Walt Harris and Carlos Rogers -- are questionable for Sunday's re-match. But to hear the Cowboys tell it, Arrington's return might make the defense just as good as it was when the teams met in September.

"Believe me, we realize he's back," tight end Jason Witten said. "We realize what he brings to their defense. He's a great athlete, he's a great player and really a great asset to that defense."

Arrington's statistics -- 39 tackles in basically seven games -- are nowhere near what's expected for a player who has made the Pro Bowl in three of his first five seasons. But he has unseated Holdman as the team's starter on the left side and improves the defense's size, speed and pass rushing ability. If he can stay in his coaches' good graces, he remains a major impact player.

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