Browns' move trades talent for tranquility

ON THE NFL

Nfl Week 11

November 16, 2003|By KEN MURRAY

The release of wide receiver Kevin Johnson by the Cleveland Browns last week triggered an unprecedented stampede for the waiver wire.

Intrigued by his playmaking ability and satisfied with his salary requirements, no less than 16 teams put in a claim for Johnson, who had led the Browns in receptions each of his five NFL seasons. Personnel men say they've never seen so many teams go after a player who's been cut.

Among the teams that claimed him were the Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions.

The Jacksonville Jaguars, instead, were the short-term winners. They were awarded Johnson's contract by virtue of their 2-7 record and a weaker schedule than the Atlanta Falcons, also 2-7.

Now it's time to find out whether the Browns were right about Johnson - they say he's a selfish, statistics-conscious prima donna who won't do the dirty work - or if there was something else at work in Cleveland.

The Browns had been disappointed in Johnson's route-running and his blocking for some time. Coach Butch Davis was so disenchanted going into the 2002 season that he dangled the former Syracuse star as trade bait, but couldn't get anyone to accept his terms.

Last week, Davis benched Johnson, he says, as a "last resort." When Johnson's reaction was something less than desired, the Browns decided to take the salary-cap hit and release him now. It could not have been an easy decision, because they paid Johnson $5.075 million over the first two years on a 2002 contract extension. And they will be charged $2.1 million in "dead money" - that's money paid to players no longer on the team - on their 2004 cap.

Normal protocol would suggest a team simply bench a player of Johnson's caliber and wait until the offseason to trade him. But Davis and team president Carmen Policy viewed Johnson as a distraction and potential divisive force in the locker room. Hence, the shocking midseason move.

On his way out, Johnson blamed quarterback Kelly Holcomb and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians for his predicament. But even one of Johnson's best friends on the team, receiver Quincy Morgan, said the fault was Johnson's.

"They gave KJ two years to correct what they wanted him to correct," Morgan told reporters. "Nothing against KJ, but if you all want the scoop, that's the scoop. It wasn't two weeks; they gave KJ two years."

Johnson isn't expected to play today for the Jaguars, who will pay him $391,000 this season and $1.55 million next. What will be interesting is to see how the Browns respond today at home against Arizona.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Triple trouble

It was an uneasy week in Indianapolis, where the Colts' so-called Triplets - quarterback Peyton Manning, receiver Marvin Harrison and running back Edgerrin James - all expressed some measure of dissatisfaction with the offense.

Manning intimated that he wasn't thrilled with coordinator Tom Moore's play-calling in a 28-23 loss to Jacksonville, even though the quarterback has the freedom to call one of three plays at the line of scrimmage. Manning threw more than a dozen screens in the game.

Harrison strained his right hamstring in the first half, but seemed more disturbed by the fact he only saw three passes in that time. Then there was James, who had just 15 carries for the game and only one in the fourth quarter. "Maybe I'm not good enough," he said.

By mid-week, all three had backed away from controversy, though. Calming the waters, coach Tony Dungy said: "We want to get our good players the ball. We wish we had 200 plays. It doesn't work out that way."

Another flawed view

Instant replay was exposed as ineffectual again last Sunday night, when the St. Louis Rams' Dane Looker skipped a tightrope down the sideline with a punt return to set up a touchdown against the Ravens.

Although Looker appeared to come very close to stepping out of bounds, ESPN's replay system was malfunctioning at the time and the play could not be reviewed even if Brian Billick had wanted.

According to ESPN spokesman Dave Nagle, ESPN had 19 cameras and 17 tape sources for the game, providing more angles and options than Fox or CBS for Sunday afternoon games.

But all officials could see was what viewers saw, a camera angle from press box level on the far side of the field. Nagle said officials knew the limitations they were under at the start of the game.

Road weary

Of the 16 road teams in Monday night games this season, 13 get to play at home the following week and two have had a bye. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers have to play on the road six days after their prime-time appearance.

Worse, the Steelers have to make a cross-country flight for tomorrow's game in San Francisco, then play in Cleveland in Week 12.

"I don't see how there's any justification for that," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said.

Two-minute drill

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