Nice speech, Dave, but it didn't work

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dave Shula's diatribe is done. The head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals has voiced his displeasure about the players who skipped his voluntary camp, and he has moved on.

Having failed to cajole Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott and Dan Wilkinson into attending this week's mini-camp, Shula tried to shame them Tuesday.

"They want respect," Shula said. "They have to treat others with respect, and this is not treating this organization with respect. It hurts everybody. I would think it says something to their teammates . . .

"They have seven months and two weeks of off-season time. I ask them for seven voluntary days and three mandatory days. It's sickening to think you can't plan your schedule accordingly."

It was a swell little speech - stern, reasoned and righteous - but it did not seem to make much impact on its target audience. Pickens, Scott and Wilkinson were again no-shows Wednesday at a soggy workout at Spinney Field, and afterward Shula declared the subject closed.

There was no point in belaboring the obvious. The same players who should be leading the Bengals are instead setting a dangerously selfish example. Their failure to fit three days of optional workouts into an off-season of seven months has upset the coaching staff and given fellow teammates grounds for resentment.

Will this flap preclude the Bengals from reaching in Super Bowl XXXI? Surely not. Does it contribute to a climate of mediocrity? Absolutely. When some of a team's most prominent players start cutting corners, it is as insidious as rust.

Can't buy motivation

Motivating millionaires is one of the greatest challenges in contemporary professional sports, and the Bengals' payroll poses some unusual problems in this regard. Jeff Blake and Ki-Jana Carter have been as willing as they are wealthy, but projecting how a player will react to newfound riches is one of the most difficult personnel decisions management makes.

Wilkinson was not yet 21 years old when he signed a $14.4 million contract to play defensive tackle for the Bengals. He was undermotivated and overweight then, but convinced the team he was eager and ambitious. In two professional seasons, he has distinguished himself as a Pro Bowl talent with a waiver wire work ethic.

Pickens is a brilliant performer, well worth the $11 million the Bengals invested in him last spring. He makes the routine catches. He makes the difficult catches. He makes people miss. He makes touchdowns. What he doesn't make is good use of his stature.

Pickens probably doesn't need the voluntary workouts to be worthy of the Pro Bowl, but he ought to be conscious of the influence he has on others.

Darnay Scott would follow Pickens' lead if it led him off a cliff. Scott's skills are not so great that he can afford to miss too many workouts. If Pickens shows up, Scott probably shows up. Everybody benefits because the team gets better.

No 'I' in team

Team concept is a tough thing to sell in the age of free agency. Star athletes increasingly think of themselves as independent contractors rather than integrated components. They leave the voluntary workouts to the rank and file.

Trouble is, these mini-camps are not merely designed to measure who's in shape. The Bengals use their voluntary camp to test plays for the upcoming season. Some will go into the playbook because of their success at Spinney this week. Others will be rejected.

"If Darnay and Carl aren't here, there are things that we are looking at with those guys in particular that we can't do," Shula said Wednesday. "It just slows the process down."

Bruce Kozerski is the senior Bengal, starting his 13th season on the offensive line, and he continues to find value in these refresher courses. Maybe he doesn't learn something new every day, but he might help a rookie get up to speed.

"These are voluntary camps," Kozerski said. "If guys have something (else) important that they've got to do, they should do it. But if you can be here in any way possible, you should be here."

Originally published May 9, 1996.