Pros sending problem players packing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

The Portland Trail Blazers, better known for rap sheets than score sheets, finally started the cleansing process by trading a skilled guard fond of tirades and obscene gestures. After suspending the often-fined Bonzi Wells for two games for insubordination against coach Maurice Cheeks, they traded Wells to the Memphis Grizzlies for a protected first-round pick, cap space and solid citizen Wesley Person. The Blazers are still trying to move problem player Rasheed Wallace. "I think it's key for the fans to understand that we're listening," president Steve Patterson said. "And we're following through on what we said we would do."

New Bucks coach Terry Porter reportedly had a role in Milwaukee's decision not to re-sign Anthony Mason and Jason Caffey because of his concern about their influence on a young team.

New coach Paul Silas has tried to bring order to the Cleveland Cavaliers, giving short suspensions to starter Ricky Davis and reserve Ira Newble. Silas' view: "We needed a purging of all the nonsense, to get on the right page, the same page." This month, Silas traded Davis to the Boston Celtics.

Chicago Bulls general manager John Paxson, forced to fire coach Bill Cartwright after watching bickering players appear to quit on him, traded top scorer Jalen Rose to the Raptors, netting disgruntled-in-Toronto big man Antonio Davis. "I'll say this, forever," Paxson said. "I'm trying to build a team, a group of individuals who play together, play hard and are willing to sacrifice on the floor."

So is something building here? Are players losing their pull? Can coaches start pushing them around? Is character starting to count more than statistics and dollars?

Try suggesting that to George Karl.

Karl, an ESPN analyst, held an NBA record of 708-499 but never really held his fate in his hands. The players held it in theirs. And they squeezed it hard on many occasions, until it cracked for good. Karl openly sparred with Bucks stars Sam Cassell (Dunbar), Glenn Robinson and Ray Allen. All three were ultimately traded. Finally, Karl was fired.

"I managed those guys for five years, until they were way past manageable," Karl says. "They were really past manageable in the second year. They don't like each other. They don't pass the ball. They don't play any defense. They're not good teammates. How are you going to build a foundation around that?"

Enter the agent

Karl tears down any notion that coaches can seize more control anytime soon in a league with guaranteed long-term player contracts. He believes those contracts have given power to two unstoppable forces. One, the straining of relationships between bulletproof players and expendable coaches, has been widely acknowledged. But he cites a second: agents constantly complaining to the organization about how the coach is treating their players.

"All these cliches, you're disrespecting my guy, you're not being fair to him, I don't know if my player can handle this, blah, blah, blah," Karl says. "Ninety percent of the time, the player is doing everything they are projecting on the organization. It's hilarious. I see it all the time. You do not know how many phone calls there are to the organization when Ricky Davis doesn't play enough."

Karl predicts that if a problem player doesn't get enough time or touches, tonight or any night, he will call his agent before taking a shower. That agent has probably already called the general manager.

This pattern, Karl says, leads to a "subtle wearing away of the relationship between the GM and the coach," even those that started positive. After all, to paraphrase Karl in far less colorful language, "If you tell me my son is a jerk every day for five years, you know, he's a jerk."

As the management/coach relationship deteriorates, the coach/player one becomes unsalvageable. "It has removed the coach as an authoritative position, and it is also removing him as a teacher," Karl says. "Because you can't really teach unless you have authority."

So what are your options, when you are just a coach without the veto power that establishes you as the clear boss? What can you do when agents and players are trying to take away what Karl calls a coach's "only really good hammer," the distribution of playing time?

"You don't have any unless an organization wants to be strong, and most don't want to be strong," Karl says. "Most just want you to manage the situation."

Act up, get traded

That means players can even take public shots at the coach and avoid an organizational response. Karl was told the Bucks could not fine their players because they did not want to degrade their value for a possible trade. So now, most trades in the league are garbage trades. My garbage for your garbage. And it pays for the garbage to make a stink.

"Players know that the more they act up, the faster they get traded," Karl says. "So, think about that, how fun that is."

Karl says for every publicized coach/player conflict, 10 more fester. And he expects the situation to worsen still, when agents start writing playing time and coaching preferences into contracts. He says owners, with hundreds of millions at stake, will never risk alienating the players.

"It will never change unless you change the guaranteed contract," Karl says. "You may get control of it, but it will never change."

The NFL does not have guaranteed contracts. That is a clear advantage. It awards signing bonuses, but base salaries are subject to restructuring or elimination.

So, a disciplinarian such as Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells can cut a guy - recently, third cornerback Derek Ross - just to stir things up. And Parcells can keep control of players in the modern financial climate:

"I've never thought the game was about money. I really don't," Parcells said. "I don't think it's about money, and if you have players on your team that are strictly about money, then you try to get rid of them. This game has never been about money to me. I always tell my players this game is about achievement. And the only thing you're going to remember is what you achieve if you're worth a darn. If you're just a mercenary, well, then you might be remembered for something else. ... I think most all of them say, 'OK, this is a job,' but, just like any of us, if you're prideful, you want to do well."

Harder in NBA

And his quarterback, Quincy Carter, says Parcells instantly earned respect by treating everyone the same, heading off any whispering about one guy being favored. He's Bill Parcells, Super Bowl champion, so he comes with credibility many coaches lack. And he doesn't coach in the NBA.

"They are two opposite ends of the spectrum," says former NBA coach Mike Fratello, now a Heat broadcaster. "That's the beginning of the leverage that coaches, ownership and management has. In the NFL, you can give a series of five, six, seven one-year contracts. You have the ability to say, 'OK, goodbye, that's it.' In the NBA, you might say goodbye, but owe him for five years at $10 million per year."

But NFL coaches still have to make some tough decisions.

Owner support

Consider Dave Wannstedt's summer of 2002 decision to cut Gardener, who was a starter, a former first-round pick, and, most importantly, a large cap slot. And while cutting him saved the Dolphins some money, the acceleration of his signing bonus still meant spending $6.1 million in dead money in 2003. In other words, 10 percent of the Dolphins' salary cap this season is reserved for a player playing elsewhere.

"You have to have an owner that, No. 1, totally supports you and believes that you are making the best decision for the team," Wannstedt says. "And before the Daryl Gardener incident, I remember calling Wayne [Huizenga], and explaining to him the history, and why I wanted to do this. And his comment to me was, 'Well, have you thought it over good?' I said, 'Yes, I have.' And he said, 'Well, you know, I have confidence that you know what's best for this team.' "

Wannstedt acknowledges his decision put considerable pressure on the team's financial and personnel men. And it could have hurt the owner's product.

But Huizenga trusted his judgment.

That is essential in any league. Fratello said it should be a prerequisite for taking a job. While he understands some young coaches just being happy to be hired, he doesn't want to hear those same coaches complain later when their owners cave in to player complaints, or too easily forgive player transgressions. Or when owners start meddling in playing-time issues.

Coaches hold playing time dear, because most players do. It represents a coach's leverage. Sitting someone, Fratello says, not only hurts his pride and deprives him of competition, but can also affect his ability to negotiate his next contract.

"But sometimes, you get a guy who flat-out doesn't care," Fratello says. "He becomes a flat-out pain for everybody. He's so self-absorbed, so caught up in his personal duel with the head coach or management that he mentally packs it in for the things that are important, his commitment to his teammates and to the people who are paying him a lot of money to perform. You're not going to make that guy care, if he's so set in his ways. The best thing is to just move on.

"But suppose that guy has five or six years left with all that money. What do you do? Try to move him. But suppose no one else wants him?"

'Expendable' players

Fratello isn't so sure there is a trend of coaches getting tougher. Rather, he thinks the highly publicized Keyshawn Johnson deactivation simply spotlighted other situations. Perhaps. But Johnson was certainly a topic in the Dolphins' locker room in the days after Tampa Bay's move.

Veteran receiver James McKnight says that "unless you are a quarterback, you are kind of expendable. And from a coach's standpoint, the league is going to that character guy, that guy with integrity, and they are getting away from the hothead, no matter how great your talent is on the field. So players who are a little mouthy, strong-willed ... If you are going to embarrass and downgrade and just talk at your coach ... "

You might get clipped.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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