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VA PILOT: Skins’ Pierce gets his shot without help of dumb luck


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Skins’ Pierce gets his shot without help of dumb luck

By JIM DUCIBELLA, The Virginian-Pilot


Marty Schottenheimer couldn’t have shocked reporters more had he insisted that the Washington Redskins were going to win the Super Bowl.

It was at training camp in 2001, Schottenheimer’s only season as Redskins coach. He was discussing his linebackers when he suddenly volunteered that, “This Antonio Pierce may be the smartest football player I’ve ever been around.”

For many, it was the first time they’d heard Pierce’s name. After all, he was an undrafted free-agent rookie from the University of Arizona, a bit small at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds. But Schottenheimer said the kid had speed and smarts and put his money where his mouth was by starting Pierce eight times that season. He responded with 64 tackles.

Then Schottenheimer was fired, Steve Spurrier was hired and free agents like Jessie Armstead and Jeremiah Trotter were brought in. Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis tried to give Pierce more responsibility in his only season in town, but in the end Pierce started two games and made 22 tackles, mostly on special teams.

Now there’s another new coach, and a real opportunity for Pierce to resume what started out as a potentially productive career.

With Mike Barrow listed as “questionable” for Sunday’s season opener against Tampa Bay because of tendinitis in his knee, Pierce has been working as first-team middle linebacker. It’s not Pierce’s natural position, but he’s beyond waiting for the perfect opportunity to come along.

“This is something that’s grown on me since I came into the league,” Pierce said. “I want to be the guy who loves to play and if this is what gets me on the field, I’ll all for it.”

Character and intelligence are the two qualities coach Joe Gibbs values most in a player. He agrees with Schottenheimer that Pierce has an abundance of both.

“He’s a perfect example of a guy who’s super smart,” Gibbs said. “We had a little highlight reel made up, and he’s in on about half of the plays. What the coaches told me is that here’s a guy who can play all three linebacker spots. It’s not SAT smarts. It’s learning something and putting it to use against moving objects. That’s different. We can count on this guy.”

Football fans got a glimpse of Pierce a week ago against Atlanta, running into the end zone to score a touchdown with a Michael Vick fumble in Washington’s 27-0 victory.

“I call him 'Money Run,’” fellow linebacker LaVar Arrington said. “He’s the unsung hero of this team. He does everything that is asked of him, never complains, and all he does is continue to come up big for us. There’s a chance people will start recognizing that this season. I’ve known it all along.”

Pierce is modest when discussing how hard it was to learn all three linebacking positions, saying that both outside spots are basically the same. But what stands out about his work in the middle is his commanding presence.

“He’s very demonstrative in his communication,” defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. “He gets everyone lined up right and is a take-charge guy. So much of our football team begins with the guy in the huddle and the way he presents the information and the way he gets people lined up. This guy does it with authority and is very definitive. He’s not afraid to express his feelings.”

What Pierce has been slightly reticent about is publicly expressing his feelings about playing. He smiles shyly and says he didn’t understand what was happening and was hurt when after his rookie season the Redskins brought in Trotter and Armstead. He thought he’d played well enough to make those moves unnecessary.

With Barrow, he understands. Barrow, who signed in April, played for associate head coach/defense Gregg Williams in Tennessee. He knows the defense and is supposed to be a coach on the field.

Williams had no way of knowing that he already had a player with that capability on his roster.

“Sometimes you have to show people that what they were looking for was right in front of them all the time,” Pierce said. “It feels like my rookie year when I got a chance to play. It’s an opportunity I’m going to try and take advantage of.”

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