Johnson-Jets acrimony grows

`I may not want to continue' with team after coach likens his star receiver to child

March 29, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The cold war between the New York Jets and Keyshawn Johnson heated up yesterday when the Pro Bowl wide receiver said he was near the point of no return.

One day after new Jets coach Al Groh likened his best player to a child who was not given an allowance increase, Johnson responded with indignation and resentment.

"I'm at the level of no matter what they talk about, or even discuss with me, I may not want to continue," Johnson said in a conference call with a small group of reporters.

"I'm almost there, but not quite there."

Asked if that meant he might not want to continue with the Jets, he said, "Yes."

What began as a financial issue -- Johnson wants the final two years of his contract reworked -- has escalated into a war of words, with veiled threats on both sides.

In the past month, the Jets have dangled Johnson in trade talks around the league, most prominently with the Ravens and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last week, and again this week at league meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., the Jets said they would not renegotiate Johnson's contract and did not plan to trade him, either.

Johnson took umbrage that the Jets talked publicly about the contract situation, while he remained mum. Until yesterday, anyway.

Now, he says, it's no longer a money issue.

"It's not about finances; it's about the respect aspect of it," he said. "Deal with a 27-year-old man with two kids. Don't deal with me like I beat people up in bars. Deal with me with respect."

Groh unwittingly struck a nerve when he addressed reporters in Palm Beach on Monday. He said he informed Johnson by telephone last week there would be no new contract this season. Asked how Johnson accepted the news, Groh said:

"What was your reaction when you asked your father for an increase in your allowance and he said, `Not right now'? Obviously, he wasn't overjoyed with the outcome."

Johnson's agent, Jerome Stanley, appeared more upset by the comment than Johnson.

"For this young man to pick up a newspaper and read a comment about somebody asking for an allowance increase and being told no that's outrageous," Stanley said from his office in Los Angeles. "This is not a little boy, this is a man with a family."

Like Johnson, Stanley also broke his monthlong silence. He dismissed the Jets' suggestion that they cannot renegotiate the contract because of salary cap problems or because of a policy that they do not redo contracts with more than one season remaining.

"This is not a league of hard salary cap," Stanley said. "It's a league of constant adjustments to the roster. All the posturing about salary caps and two years left on the contract, that's more for the public to bite on."

Johnson signed a six-year, $15 million contract with a $6.5 million signing bonus as the first pick in the 1996 draft. But he reportedly will make less than $2 million in each of the next two seasons. That's in contrast to the seven-year contract recently signed by wide receiver Joey Galloway -- worth $6 million a season -- after he sat out half the 1999 season.

It's believed Johnson wants $7 million a year.

"No one can know what contract figures would satisfy this situation," Stanley said, "because there has been no dialogue."

While Johnson has indicated he won't report to the Jets without a new contract, neither he nor his agent is publicly threatening a holdout.

Asked if he had a preference to remain with the Jets, he said, "Anywhere I can go and play, I feel I can win. That's my position."

Earlier, Johnson told friends he'd be willing to play in Baltimore or Tampa Bay for the right price. The Ravens are using the fifth pick in next month's draft as bait, and the Bucs are offering their two first-round picks (Nos. 13 and 27) plus a player.

Before Ravens coach Brian Billick headed to league meetings this week, he said the Johnson situation "bears watching."

"I'm optimistic for the same reasons as before," he said last week. "We've got draft choices, cap room and resources. But that's changing on a daily basis. My optimism is based on what we have, not on knowing what the Jets are going to do."

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