ASHBURN, Va. - As gigantic as defensive tackle Daryl Gardener is, not even the 6-foot-6, 305-pound Washington Redskin can carry a defense that has been shaken by the instability of free agency and the uncertain status of its leader.
Even with Marvin Lewis remaining as the league's highest-paid assistant head coach and defensive coordinator with Washington instead of taking a head coaching offer from Michigan State, the Redskins' defense got a first taste of the circus that will likely continue as long as Lewis searches for a head coaching position in the NFL.
Gardener, a no-nonsense player, revealed his feelings about the commotion that has surrounded Redskins Park since Lewis went to East Lansing, Mich., to interview with university officials Sunday.
"It is a distraction," Gardener said of having to answer questions about Lewis' flirtation with head coaching vacancies. "Let's put it out there: It is a distraction. We're trying to win games and now we're talking about a coach that's leaving that people feel like they can play for. We just have to keep playing no matter what the situation is."
Upheaval has become customary for Washington. Eleven members of last season's defense are no longer with the team, and 13 others left after the 2000 campaign.
This year would appear to be no different. Gardener and fellow defensive tackle Santana Dotson, linebackers Kevin Mitchell and Eddie Mason, defensive end Carl Powell and safety Sam Shade are unrestricted free agents after this season. Washington has the first opportunity to re-sign safety David Terrell, who is a restricted free agent.
Defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson reportedly will be released to create room under the salary cap, and some team officials are privately wondering how much longer aging defensive end Bruce Smith will continue playing for the Redskins.
When cornerback Darrell Green retires after the season and if Wilkinson is waived, the longest-tenured defensive player who won't be a free agent during the offseason will be 1999 first-round draft pick Champ Bailey.
"You just take care of yourself, and you let the rest take care of the rest," Bailey said when asked how he deals with the constant changes in personnel. "There's nothing I can do about hiring or keeping people around. I'm just taking care of Champ, and hopefully, guys will take care of themselves."
If Lewis leaves for a head coaching job that could open in Arizona, Cincinnati, Detroit, Jacksonville or Seattle, team owner Daniel M. Snyder will have to hire his fifth defensive coordinator in nearly as many years.
Like those of Mike Nolan, Ray Rhodes and Kurt Schottenheimer, Lewis' intricate system has become a season-long learning process for the players.
Linebacker LaVar Arrington, who perhaps has had to learn the most as he has tried to evolve into a third-down pass rusher, said contrary to the cliche, change hasn't always been good.
"We need time to gel," he said. "If you don't have an opportunity to do that from season to season and feel comfortable about going into another season rather than trying to feel comfortable about who's coming in, what scheme are we going to have now, what's my role, by the time we get to the point where people start to understand it, the season's almost over."
Somehow, Washington has managed to field defenses ranked in the league's top 10 the past two years. Under Lewis, the unit is ranked 10th in total yards allowed, but 23rd in points allowed.
But Redskins players said they are optimistic that Lewis will stay and build a defense that can match the Ravens' unit that allowed a record-low 165 points in 2000.
Gardener said he would be the first to welcome the good news.
"If he stays, I'll be the happiest individual around here, and it will show," he said.