Thursday, September 8, 2011
'Sleeping giant' anxious to spring awake
By Chris Forsberg
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Shaun Ellis knew the giant long before he began his slumber.
Ellis and Albert Haynesworth were teammates at the University of Tennessee and, though their paths diverged at the pro level, the two kept in close contact. As Haynesworth navigated two turbulent seasons with the Washington Redskins, Ellis simply told his friend to keep his head high.
Neither Ellis nor Haynesworth dreamed of being reunited in New England this season and that's part of what has made their experience here so fulfilling already for both players. And Ellis, who knows Haynesworth maybe better than anyone else in the Patriots' locker room, said he can already see a difference in his friend.
"One thing about Albert, he's going to be Albert; he's always going to be himself," said Ellis. "But I definitely see the Albert I saw back in college here in New England."
What Ellis sees is a happy Haynesworth, something that was decidedly MIA in D.C. As the Patriots prepare to open their 2011 season Monday night against the Miami Dolphins, Haynesworth has a certain jolliness about him as he prepares to reintroduce himself to the football world.
"For two years, I was kind of taken out of football a little bit, and now I'm back in it," Haynesworth said Thursday at Gillette Stadium. "I'm truly enjoying the game again. I'm truly enjoying coming in to practice, coming in to work every day. Just to be able to have a chance again to play and to show what I can do, it's awesome.
"I think it's time for me, the sleeping giant, to awake, and go back out there on that field and play football."
Haynesworth and a revamped defensive line might be the biggest storyline of the new season for New England. As the Patriots switch to a base 4-3 defense, there's potential for Haynesworth to line up next to Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, with the likes of Ellis and former Redskins teammate Andre Carter on the ends.
The result, the Patriots hope, is an improved pass rush and the return of a player who earned back-to-back All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors while registering 14.5 sacks for the Tennessee Titans over the course of the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
That production helped Haynesworth score a seven-year, $100 million deal with the Redskins, but led only to two years of well-documented turbulence. As Haynesworth surmised Thursday, "Just to be in that situation, it sucked."
As Week 1 approaches, it's a friendly reminder of how much things have changed. A year ago, Haynesworth said he didn't expect to even play in the Redskins' season opener against the Dallas Cowboys. After he struggled to pass the team's preseason conditioning test, there were reports he would be deactivated for the game. Adding to his frustration was his perception that he didn't fit in the Redskins' 3-4 defensive alignment, preferring the 4-3, in which he thrived in Tennessee.
Haynesworth played just 17 snaps in a reserve role in Week 1 a year ago and things only got worse. After he appeared in just eight games, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan suspended Haynesworth for the final four games of the 2010 season, essentially ending his Washington tenure.
The clouds started parting for Haynesworth in late July when he was traded to New England for a fifth-round draft pick. With some additional off-the-field troubles resolved in training camp, Haynesworth said his complete focus now is on the gridiron.
"If you ever go to work hating your job, you're not going to perform at your best," explained Haynesworth, who sported a blue cap that read, "PAT'S" with his No. 92 on the back. It has double meaning for Haynesworth, as it also advertises for a friend's towing company of the same name -- and colors -- in Worcester, Mass. It's the same friend who brought him to a playoff game during one of New England's Super Bowl seasons and piqued his interest in playing for the Patriots.
"If you enjoy coming to work and you enjoy being around the people you work with, then you give it your all."
Buoyed by the consistent support of everyone from Ellis to coach BIll Belichick to owner Robert Kraft, Haynesworth believes he's in position to thrive. The giant stirred briefly last week, appropriately, against the New York Giants. Haynesworth made his preseason debut during New England's exhibition finale, playing 16 snaps, and registering two tackles.
Despite the limited preseason activity, which included him sitting out much of camp, he deemed himself physically and mentally ready for the 2011 season.
|Patriots defensive lineman Shaun Ellis, a college teammate of Albert Haynesworth's, is looking forward to a college reuinion in opposing teams' backfields.|
"I'm feeling good," said Haynesworth. "I talked to my coaches and they said, 'Since the day you got in here, you've been improving, getting better and better.' I still have work to do to get to where I want to be. It's coming along great."
Haynesworth has already said he'd give back all the guaranteed money he earned in Washington if he could go back and sign with New England two years earlier. He also has called Foxborough a "career-saving" place and suggested this will be the final stop on his NFL journey. Kraft said Haynesworth defies all the negative media perceptions.
But Haynesworth knows the damage the past two years have caused his reputation. Monday night marks the first chance to start rewriting all the negative publicity he's drawn.
"I read what you guys wrote, nothing personal, but I didn't do much in D.C.," said Haynesworth. "The scheme didn't fit me and that stuff. Now I can go out there and play get back to what I used to do."
To Ellis, it all sounds exactly like the Haynesworth he used to know.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots and Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.