Carl Pickens is the best receiver nobody knows.
He has never played in a playoff game, appeared on "Monday Night Football" only once and hasn't been asked to do the ESPN "Sunday Conversation."
What he does is catch passes.
He has caught 391 in six years, leaving him 27 shy of surpassing Isaac Curtis and Cris Collinsworth and setting the Cincinnati Bengals' record. He also caught 41 touchdown passes from Jeff Blake from 1994 to 1997, which is tops for any duo in the league in that span.
Despite all that, Pickens has played in obscurity on a losing team in a small market.
"You rarely see me on TV," he said. "I'm rarely asked to do stuff like that. No commercials, no endorsements or posters and stuff like that. You just don't see it.
"It has been frustrating. You don't get as much notoriety. This is a team game, and when the team does well, everybody benefits from that."
Yet he's partially responsible for his low profile.
Pickens came out of college at Tennessee dubbed the "Dude With a 'Tude" and had some problems early in his career.
In his second NFL season, a middle-aged man accused Pickens of grabbing him by the throat and throwing him against a car after a traffic mishap before a Bengals game. The matter was settled out of court.
Later that year in a game against the Steelers, he scuffled with cornerback Rod Woodson after Pickens apparently made a mocking reference to Woodson's interracial marriage. The two have since apparently reconciled.
He rarely gave interviews in past years, and when he did, there has often been an edge to them.
When a Cincinnati columnist approached him last year, he said: "Why do you want to talk to me?"
When the columnist replied: "Because you're here six years and you've never really talked. And you may be the best receiver playing now."
Pickens said: "Are you saying that because you mean it or because you want to talk to me?"
He later said: "I trust the people I have to trust. I have close friends, but not a lot. And I don't need for you to know me."
This year, though, he seems to be willing to reveal more about himself. He's been giving more interviews, including one for this article.
Is that a sign Pickens is trying to change his image?
"No," he replied. "I'm still the same guy I was. I still have the same job. Right now, going through training camp, a lot of focus is on football. This interview is about football, so why not do it?"
But the edge is always close to the surface. When asked if the groin injury that sidelined him at the end of last year bothered him in the off-season, he said: "What groin injury? That was last year. This is this year. I forgot about that. In other words, I'm 100 percent."
When he was asked what it's like playing for coach Bruce Coslet, he simply replied, "Next question."
So, how would Pickens describe himself?
"Very low-key," he said. "I think a lot of people take that the wrong way. My job is to play football, and I take that very seriously. That's what I concentrate on a lot of the time."
One thing he makes clear is he's tired of losing. He wants to be on a winner, and thinks the Bengals can make the playoffs this year.
"This is the year," he said. "This is the turning point. This year will make all the difference, I think, for the Cincinnati Bengals organization. It's time we go out and play like we're capable of playing. For a lot of guys, this is their third and fourth year on this team, so it's not like we're young guys. The bottom line it's all about effort."
Is he suggesting the team didn't give enough effort in the past?
"We were just having, I guess, growing pains," he said. "We were letting little things distract us. Not completing on third down was a big problem last year. The turnover ratio was a big problem for us last year. We have to correct those mistakes first of all and have everybody as a whole being on the same page. I don't think at times we were focused enough last year."
Nobody has ever questioned that Pickens is focused on the field.
Mike Brown, the team's owner, said: "We've never had anybody here who was more of a competitor."
Nobody doubted his physical ability, either.
Former 49ers coach Bill Walsh said when he saw him play at Tennessee against Notre Dame while he was broadcasting for NBC, he felt Pickens was "as fine a receiver as I've ever seen."
Yet he was bypassed in the first round in 1992 until the Bengals took him with the 31st pick on the second round. It's a slight Pickens still hasn't forgotten, and he can rattle off how the first round went that year.
He appears driven to be the best in his profession. Asked about Jerry Rice, he said: "He's the best. I don't want to be like Jerry. I want to be better than Jerry."
How the Bengals do this year probably depends on how the quarterback plays. Boomer Esiason replaced Jeff Blake for the final five games last year and posted a 4-1 record before retiring to the "Monday Night Football" broadcast booth.
The Bengals have brought in Neil O'Donnell to compete with Blake. One of them has to emerge if the Bengals are to improve.
Pickens is probably rooting for Blake, because they've been the most effective duo in football the last four years. But Pickens only said, "I can't make that decision."
Bengals at a glance
Offense: With Corey Dillon at running back and Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott as receivers, the Bengals have a set of offensive weapons that is the envy of most teams. The question mark is at quarterback. Jeff Blake was benched last year and he seemed to be the problem, because the team went 4-1 under the now-retired Boomer Esiason. The Bengals paid Neil O'Donnell big money to challenge Blake. One of them has to be effective for the Bengals to be a winning team.
Defense: The Bengals need a lot of offensive production, because they don't have a very good defense. They ranked 28th in the league last year in yardage allowed. The party line is that the team was still adjusting to the zone blitz scheme installed last year by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The real problem is the team doesn't have playmakers on defense. They tried to solve the problem by drafting linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons on the first round, but it remains to be seen how effective they'll be as rookies.
Special teams: Kicker Doug Pelfrey started the season as the most accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history, dipped to fifth during the season and finished No. 2 to Chris Boniol while making his last 10 attempts of the season. He's 9-for-12 in what the Bengals call "clutch" kicks in his career, which means a kick in the last two minutes that ties the game or puts the team ahead or wins it in overtime. Lee Johnson was only adequate as a punter, averaging 42.9 yards a kick.
Outlook: For two straight years, the Bengals have been noted for slow starts and fast finishes. Last year, they started 1-7 and finished 6-2. In 1996, they started 1-6 and finished 7-2. Notice a trend here? It doesn't help this year that they have the Packers and Steelers at home in their third and fifth games. That means the first two against the Oilers and the Lions and the fourth one against the Ravens will be critical if they're to avoid another bad start.
This is the third in a series of articles on the Ravens' opponents in the AFC Central.
Pub Date: 8/12/98