Linebacker Wilber Marshall is getting a lot of compliments this year, but he doesn't want to accept them.
In his fourth season with the Washington Redskins, Marshall is having the kind of season the team figured he was going to have when it invested $6 million and two first-round draft picks to get him as a free agent from the Chicago Bears in 1988.
Marshall, named the NFC's defensive player of the month yesterday, is tied for the NFL lead with five interceptions. He's also second on the team with 70 tackles, leads in assists with 28, leads the team with five tackles for losses and has chipped in with 1 1/2 sacks.
"Wilber's having his best year," said Richie Petitbon, the assistant coach who runs the defense.
Nobody's arguing -- except Marshall.
For Marshall to say he's playing better this year than he has the past three years would mean saying he didn't play that well before.
Because Marshall has spent the last three years saying he was just been doing what the Redskins were asking him to do, that's not an admission he's ready to make.
"They make the game plan. I just play. Nothing's changed," he said.
Well, one thing has changed. Marshall is now playing every down instead of being pulled on passing downs. The result is that he's picked off five passes this year, compared with four in his first three years with the team.
Is Marshall making more plays because he's a full-time player or he is a full-time player because he's making more plays?
"I'm playing the same," he said. "I've played just as well all four years that I've been here. People need to look at the all-around picture, but they don't and I can't change that so I don't worry about it."
Petitbon says he's playing more because he's playing better.
"If a guy hits .300, you don't take him out of the lineup," Petitbon said. "He was performing at that level from day one in training camp. You play the guys who are producing."
If Marshall is playing better, the next question is obvious: Why?
"Why do some guys hit .400 one year and in the next year, they hit .290? Who knows?" Petitbon said. "You look for reasons why guys go in slumps. That's the mystery of sports. That's what makes it exciting. He's a good football player who's having a great year is the way I describe it."
Petitbon, though, does have one theory. He says Marshall improved his quickness by losing a few pounds.
"As you get on in age [he's 29], you should lose weight to keep your quickness," he said.
Marshall, who's listed at about 230, doesn't buy that argument, either.
"I don't even want to get into that kind of thing. That's a bad question," he said.
"Because I said so," he said.
The debate about Marshall's playing puts coach Joe Gibbs in an uncomfortable position because he defended Marshall the past three years, saying he was playing the run the way the Redskins wanted him to.
"What I said was that he was playing fine and I think he was, and I think now he's probably playing better," Gibbs said.
Marshall, meanwhile, is staying above the debate.
"When people say, 'You're having a great year,' I go, 'Well, [I'm doing] the same thing [I did] when I came in here. I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing," he said.
NOTES: DL Eric Williams (neck) returned to practice yesterday. . . . LB Matt Millen left after the defensive team practiced because he chipped a tooth while eating a pretzel at lunch.