Pros sending problem players packing

Clubs may be starting to show less tolerance for vets causing trouble

December 26, 2003|By Ethan J. Skolnick | Ethan J. Skolnick,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Some revolutions may very well start with a whisper.

But can you still start one with a whistle?

During the past few weeks, some NFL and NBA coaches and executives have shown a willingness to blow their whistles on veteran players they deem potentially detrimental to their programs, by poisoning the atmosphere, corrupting impressionable teammates and undermining authority. These decision-makers have done so despite the heavy consequences, not merely to the roster's overall talent level, but also the franchise's financial health.

"They have learned their lessons," says 13-year veteran Rob Burnett, a former Ravens defensive end now with the Miami Dolphins. "Selfishness becomes a cancer in the locker room. There has to be some sort of diplomacy in the moves you make, but when an individual is out for himself, he's not worth the big picture, because eventually he will kill you. Maybe not this week. He might be helping you this week, but eventually it will kill you."

So several teams have fired first, by firing or banishing top players.

The Cleveland Browns waived leading receiver Kevin Johnson because they believed he had let his frustrations about playing time and opportunities affect his play. Team president Carmen Policy submitted a newspaper article as evidence, noting how many times Johnson had been quoted using the first person instead of the collective. The Jacksonville Jaguars claimed Johnson, picking up his remaining $390,000 salary this season and $1.4 million next season. But the Browns' salary cap will still take a $2.1 million hit in 2004.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers deactivated three-time Pro Bowl receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who had clashed with coach Jon Gruden, expressed a desire to play elsewhere in 2004 and allegedly missed mandatory meetings and workouts. They could not release him, because doing so would have caused a $6.51 million acceleration of his signing bonus and forced the release of several other players to get back under the salary cap. The team, which was responsible for the remainder of his $500,000 salary this season, will either trade or release him this offseason.

The Denver Broncos took quick action against defensive tackle Daryl Gardener, whom they had given a $3 million bonus in the offseason despite a history of disruptive behavior. They suspended him for one game, embarrassed him by showing a tape of his sluggish play to teammates, then suspended him for two more games after he went on radio and called coach Mike Shanahan "that little man up there." Gardener has lost close to $500,000 because of the suspensions and a workout bonus he did not earn in the spring. All this during a season that started late, after Gardener injured his wrist in an offseason fight in a pancake house parking lot.

After the second suspension, Shanahan said: "The distraction is with me having to deal with these questions. But I would rather have the distraction than have these players have the distraction. The reason he is not with our football team is that he was a distraction."

Two weeks ago, Denver put Gardener on the non-football injury list to attend to personal issues.

The Seattle Seahawks, coached by Mike Holmgren, benched No. 2 receiver Koren Robinson and linebacker Anthony Simmons for games because of tardiness to a team meeting and bristling at coaching criticism, respectively. The Philadelphia Eagles, coached by Andy Reid, never gave Duce Staley his starting position back after he returned from a holdout. And the Cincinnati Bengals have mixed Rudi Johnson into their backfield rotation with often-disgruntled star Corey Dillon, likely setting up the exit Dillon has sought, just as the franchise has turned the corner.

And in the NBA, where guaranteed contracts put even more power into the hands of players, there are more bosses trying to show they are still boss.

"Character always matters," says 10-year veteran Eddie Jones, a Miami Heat guard in the middle of a guaranteed seven-year, $86 million contract. "It filters to the other players, and coaches don't want to have to deal with that, rightly so. When it filters to guys that are really guys that should be listening to what the coach has to say that don't necessarily have a bad attitude, they go the other direction."

`Earn that respect'

Is there a line, though? Are there players you can't punish?

"I don't know," Jones says. "But what are you going to go do, not deal with a guy like Shaquille [O'Neal]? Do you not deal with somebody of that caliber? I still think you have to discipline them. Got to suspend them or something. Earn that respect, get that respect."

Some NBA teams are trying.

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