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Picking up the pieces

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. – Thoughts, images and numbers stick in defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth's mind with the ease of a vacuum picking up dirt.

"He's the smartest football player I've been around," said Tennessee Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn, whose coaching career goes back to 1976 as a graduate assistant. "There are some guys who are as smart, like (defensive end) Kyle (Vanden Bosch), but Albert drives Kyle crazy because Albert doesn't have to take any notes. He can look at something and hear it and just remember it. If we say in a meeting Wednesday like, 'They ran nine times and passed twice out of such and such formation,' he remembers it without taking a single note."

Combine that with awesome athletic ability for a man of Haynesworth's size (6-foot-6, 345-pounds), and you have a player who could easily be considered for some postseason honors, perhaps even defensive player of the year. Haynesworth, more than quarterback Vince Young, has helped put the 6-3 Titans in the playoff hunt. In fact, while the latter was sidelined with a hamstring injury last Sunday, the Jacksonville Jaguars ran effectively (44 carries, 166 yards) and controlled the clock (34:23) during a 28-13 win.

While Haynesworth's abilities and performance have left onlookers awestruck, the more stunning story is the massive distance Haynesworth has covered over the past year. This time a year ago, Haynesworth was the pariah of the NFL after he kicked off the helmet of Dallas Cowboys center Andre Gurode and then stepped on Gurode's face. The incident earned Haynesworth a five-game suspension, the longest ever imposed on a player for an on-field incident.

The moment, played over and over again on television, is easy to find on YouTube to this day, and is the most prominent part of his Wikipedia entry. Some people argued Haynesworth should have been banned for life for such an act.

Now, as Haynesworth has picked up the pieces and put together the best year of his career, the popular notion is that he's been driven because he's in the final year of his contract, and is hoping to hit big in free agency. Haynesworth quickly dismisses that notion.

"You have to love this game first to play it," he said. Likewise, Titans head Jeff Fisher and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Haynesworth's play would have probably been at this level by last year if not for a pair of dislocated elbows that hampered him earlier and then the suspension.

But if you talk to Haynesworth for more than five minutes, discussing everything from football to his business ventures to the intriguing classes his two youngest children take at preschool, you wonder, how can this be the same person who went over the edge?

He's in the process of starting a construction company with a business partner. He's already established a cattle business and an online travel service that he and his wife Stephanie, who doubles as a realtor, started in March. A key component to the travel business, Haynesworth said, is he can will it to two more generations of his family. So clearly, the 26-year-old father of three is aggressively planning out a future … even when some people are stuck on his past.

"I know that's what I'm known for," Haynesworth said, referring to the Gurode play. "But I don't want that to define my career. I know it does right now and it's going to take a long time to change that, two, three, maybe four years … but what I want to be known for is being the best defensive tackle to ever play this game. I know I've gotten a late start on that, but that's what it's about for me."

TESTED EARLY

After a hearty steak dinner at Sperry's upscale restaurant in suburban Nashville, Haynesworth is languidly sipping on an ounce-and-half of Louis XIII brandy as he remembers some of the pre-draft interviews he did for roughly 14 teams in 2002. One was with the Carolina Panthers, where current Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio was defensive coordinator.

Haynesworth leans back in his chair, pretending to be Del Rio and repeats something Del Rio asked in a challenging tone.

"What makes you think you can come in this league and handle someone like Larry Allen?" Haynesworth remembers Del Rio saying with almost a sneer in his voice as he talked about Allen, the best interior offensive lineman in the game at the time. "Larry Allen will destroy you."

The point of Del Rio's question was obvious. He was measuring Haynesworth's reaction, Haynesworth's pride.

Nearly six years later, it's deeply telling how vividly Haynesworth remembers the moment. He took Del Rio's challenge literally the first time he played against Allen in the second game of Haynesworth's rookie season.

Early in the game, Haynesworth tossed Allen to the ground. Allen suffered an ankle injury, tried to return, but was done for that game and the next one.

"I wanted to give Del Rio something to see about how I could handle Larry Allen," Haynesworth said.

Those types of emotional fits and spurts defined Haynesworth's early career. Washburn, Fisher and Schwartz all used the term "flashed" when referring to Haynesworth's play. He'd flash his talent from time to time, maybe four good plays a game, and then recede to the norm or take himself out of the game altogether for lack of conditioning.

"When I first got here, you'd see the dominating play four or five times a game," said Vanden Bosch, who is in his third season with the Titans. "Now, I don't really get to see it directly all the time, usually not until I see the tape. But I can see that something is going on out of the corner of my eye. It's like going past a car crash on the highway. You can't really see everything going on, but you know something has happened."

The process of going from occasional stud to steady performer started immediately after Haynesworth returned from the suspension last season.

"He was getting there for a couple of years," Fisher said. "It wasn't just the suspension shaking him up. But when he came back from the suspension, it was all business. He didn't come in and talk or anything; he just did his job. Then, this offseason, he really dedicated himself. He came in and worked on his technique and his conditioning."

The technique Haynesworth has begun to master is getting his hands on offensive linemen more so that he can translate his stunning quickness more consistently. A bonus to the technique work is that Haynesworth isn't absorbing the body blows that would wear him down in the past.

"It's all about getting that separation from the offensive lineman," said Haynesworth, who then pointed to a college game playing on a large screen in a private side room of the restaurant. "See how all the guys are playing right now, nobody is getting any separation. They're playing right into the offensive line's strength."

The benefit of improved technique and conditioning are they allow Haynesworth to take advantage of his amazing talent. He's not as tired at the end of games anymore. That showed on Oct. 7 in a critical last-minute, goal-line stand during the Titans' 20-13 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Atlanta had a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. The Falcons called for quarterback Byron Leftwich to pitch the ball to running back Warrick Dunn for an outside run. The offensive linemen were in a typically low crouch at the line, trying to get lower than the defensive linemen to gain leverage or simply cut them off.

Haynesworth saw only one answer to stop the play: Leap over the top of the line and disrupt Leftwich as soon as possible. It's stunning for a man that big to make that play.

"God only made a handful of people Albert's size who can do stuff like that," Vanden Bosch said.

Atlanta coach Bobby Petrino narrowed the field even more.

"When (Haynesworth) leapfrogged (the offensive line) and got a hold of (Leftwich's) jersey, he really wasn't able to get around for the pitch. I've never really seen that done before," Petrino said that day. "We knew going in that they were good on the defensive front. Haynesworth's been playing very good all year long. We tried to slide the protection to him. Just about every time we threw the ball he caused us a lot of problems."

BOILING OVER

Haynesworth has commanded a double-team of blockers almost all season. He has freed the rest of the defense to control games and allowed the Titans to win even as Young, the superlative second-year talent, has struggled to be an effective passer.

Still, the question lurks with Haynesworth: How did such a talent lose it so drastically in that moment against Gurode? Haynesworth won't say, but friends suggest that Gurode was trying to hurt Haynesworth's knees and even threatened Haynesworth during the game.

Maybe, but Haynesworth has a history of temper-filled rages, starting in college. Last year, after the Gurode incident, former Titans center Justin Hartwig ripped Haynesworth for being out of control. Fisher made it clear that if things didn't change, Haynesworth might not be back with the Titans.

Since his return, Haynesworth has kept his emotions from boiling over, though the intensity is certainly still evident.

"I want to dominate people, embarrass them," he said.

"You don't want to say that," Stephanie countered.

"But that's what it is: I want to dominate. I want to prove that I'm the better man," Haynesworth said.

Said Washburn: "I always tell the players that there are two types of players: The guys who want to get away from the combat and those who want to be part of it. It's obvious which kind Albert is. He loves the combat, the competition of it. He never shies away from it."

He also plays the most intense position in an incredibly intense sport, both physically and mentally. Last year, after the incident with Gurode, Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene talked about how close to the edge someone at that position has to play.

"You are always one step from going over that edge, just one second," Greene said. "Occasionally, it's going to happen. What he did was bad and he got punished, like he deserved. But all these politically correct people who think he's some monster for doing that don't understand. They have no clue."

Thus, you have the combination of an emotionally edgy man in a job where there are plenty of triggers. Even before the Gurode incident, close confidant Dr. John Verble gave Haynesworth a book on the process of learning to control emotions.

But while it's one thing to read about such a process, it's another to live it. While Haynesworth discounts the punishment he received as having helped him, Verble and Vanden Bosch believe the incident might have been the bottom point so many people have to hit before they get control.

"I think an important thing for Albert has been to figure out how he fits in," said Verble, who was introduced to Haynesworth at the University of Tennessee. "He got to this team and it took time. I think he went from feeling like he was being criticized to being praised and liked by his teammates, that he was wanted there. When he couldn't be there last year (while serving the suspension), all the things we've been talking about for the past five years really started to click and that's what I think you see the results of now."

What you may have now is a man who can harness all his ability without repeating his terrible act. Clearly, Haynesworth has found his focus.

After Haynesworth had a career-high three sacks (he never had more than three in a season to that point) in a Nov. 4 win over Carolina, he received a game ball from Fisher. In turn, Haynesworth gave the ball to Verble.

"I think that was a big deal for Albert. He's starting to see all the things that are there for him," Verble said. "In his mind, he's seeing the big picture about his life."