FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — No more counting sheep for the 350-pound distraction who calls himself “the sleeping giant.” It’s time for Albert Haynesworth to resume piling up sacks.
After his tumultuous second season with the Washington Redskins, Haynesworth said Thursday he’s happy to come to work again. Going into the New England Patriots’ first game on Monday night, at the Miami Dolphins, he’s more excited than he’s been in some past openers.
“At least last year,” Haynesworth said. “I didn’t think I was going to play. I was playing a lot of scout team. So now I’m in this system and I’m playing and practicing and stuff, and I think it’s time for … I guess, the sleeping giant to awake and to go back out there on my field and play football again.”
He didn’t play the final four games last season after coach Mike Shanahan suspended him without pay for detrimental conduct. In his two seasons of a seven-year, $100 million deal with the Redskins, the defensive lineman played just 20 games with 6½ sacks. He skipped offseason workouts last year, Shanahan’s first as coach, because he didn’t want to play nose tackle.
Haynesworth didn’t like the 3-4 alignment Shanahan installed or the nickel defense on first and second down, but wanted to play in passing situations in the third-down nickel defense.
He hasn’t complained about the Patriots defensive system since going to work for coach Bill Belichick after being traded on July 28.
“For two years, I was kind of taken out of football a little bit,” Haynesworth said. “Now, I’m back in it and am truly enjoying the game again and I truly enjoy coming into practice or coming into work every day. Just to be able to have the chance again to play and to show what I can do is awesome.”
In his first seven seasons, with the Tennessee Titans, he developed into one of the NFL’s best defensive linemen, an imposing threat to quarterbacks and running backs. But in Washington, he was hard to please. And that upset his coaches and teammates.
Like Shanahan, Belichick is serious and demanding, but Haynesworth is a big fan of his new coach.
“Coach Belichick is a great coach,” he said. “I like the place, too. It makes a huge difference when you come in and feel good about coming in the doors without having to walk in the doors looking behind your back and all that stuff, and who you talk to. You can talk to anybody here.”
He’s part of a defensive line group with a no-nonsense attitude — Vince Wilfork, Shaun Ellis, Mike Wright, Andre Carter and others.
Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo and cornerback Devin McCourty are this year’s defensive captains. The leadership in the locker room “is great,” Haynesworth said.
“The last two years it was a little different. The captains … were like almost above the team. Here with Mayo and Vince, you go up and talk to the guy. It’s not saying you couldn’t do that in D.C., but here it’s really like a family in the locker room. Everybody is for you.
“No matter what happens — if that guy does something or whatever — it doesn’t matter. We’re all behind him and we’re not going to pass judgment or anything like that. So, it’s all about everybody being for you and everybody having your back.”
Haynesworth had numerous offseason problems before coming to New England. On Aug. 22, he pleaded no contest to a charge of simple assault in a case in which he was accused of touching a waitress’ breast while having drinks with friends at a Washington hotel. If he stays out of trouble over the next 18 months and completes 160 hours of community service, prosecutors will drop the charge e ntirely.
Ellis, Haynesworth’s teammate in college at Tennessee, thought his football-related behavior in Washington was out of character.
“It surprised me,” said Ellis, another newcomer after spending his other 11 NFL seasons with the New York Jets. “I talked to him a couple of times over the offseason a couple of the years. I could just see he was very frustrated. He wasn’t happy. So now he seems like he’s very relaxed. He’s ready to go play some ball.”
Haynesworth played in just one of the Patriots’ four preseason games. That was enough for him going into the regular season, he said.
“I’ve been out there practicing a lot and I’m getting the feel of the defense,” he said. “I’m still a little bit rusty, but I had nine other years, or really seven other years, to help me get to the point to where I think I could be fine with that.”
Especially in an environment where, he said, he really wants to work.
“If you ever go to work hating your job, you’re not going to perform at your best,” Haynesworth said, “but if you enjoy coming to work and you enjoy being around the people that you work with, you give it your all.”
So the sleeping giant seems eager to chase quarterbacks and stuff runners.
“He’s a giant,” Ellis said. “He’s a pro, man. Pros adapt to whatever they have to go through.”
Shanahan probably would differ with that description of his former headache. But now Haynesworth has a fresh start with a new coach who, like his old one, has little tolerance for slackers.
“I didn’t do much in D.C. The scheme didn’t fit me,” Haynesworth said. “Now I can go out there and play and I can get back to what I used to do.”