Wrong place for Pickens
Bengals need team player, not selfish one

Monday, November 2, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Carl Pickens ouleaped defender Ray Crockett to catch a two-point conversion that tied the score in the fourth quarter.
(Saed Hindash photo)

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Carl Pickens does most of his suffering in silence. The problem is that his pantomime comes in loud and clear.

The irascible wide receiver is rarely quoted, but he has a rarer gift for the inflammatory gesture, a unique talent for telling people off with withering body language.

He continues to show up his coaches -- Sunday before 59,974 witnesses -- and the Cincinnati Bengals put up with him because No. 81 is as brilliant a performer as he is brittle a personality. He's the guy they look to with the game on the line -- their last, best hope for a big play.

Yet he's the wrong guy for this franchise at this point in its history. Pickens needs to play somewhere where no one looks to him for leadership, where his behavioral excesses are seen as comical quirks rather than cancerous examples. He should be replaced rather than re-signed.

The Bengals nearly pulled the implausible Sunday afternoon, pushing the undefeated, world champion Denver Broncos into the final minute of play before falling 33-26. It was an inspired effort by an overmatched outfit, but Pickens repeatedly made it appear as if his coaches had pulled their game plan from a garbage pail.

Twice in the fourth quarter, Pickens punctuated clutch receptions by holding his hands up and staring at the Bengals sideline. His message was unmistakeable: "See, I told you so." It was childish and selfish and entirely in character.

Mike Ditka probably would have decked Pickens by now. That Bruce Coslet hasn't is proof of his tolerance.

"He's just frustrated," Coslet said, stubbing out a cigarette in his cinder-block office at Cinergy Field. "He wants the ball on every play. Carl Pickens is a highly competitive, Type-A personality. When things go against him, he's very fragile. But if you use that, you have to use the whole thing: He comes to work every day. He studies. He prepares. He practices hard and he plays hard. He's a big part of what we do, and he'll continue to be."

Game plan problems

Pickens caught five passes Sunday for 65 yards, but evidently expected substantially more after Darnay Scott, the Bengals' second-leading receiver, was scratched Sunday morning with a strained Achilles' tendon. He was clearly upset when Neil O'Donnell didn't see him open in the back of the end zone on a second-quarter incompletion, and his exasperation grew progressively plain as the game went on.

"I know he's frustrated," said Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe, who sought Pickens out after the game. "You can see it on his face . . . You have to find a way to get your No. 1 player the ball."

Logic would tell you Scott's absence would have prompted the Broncos to redeploy their defensive backs to ensure Pickens stayed covered. What logic told Pickens is conjecture, for his only comment upon leaving the locker room was, "No comment."

How lame. How typical. Pickens goes out of his way to embarrass his coaches, and then refuses to account for his actions or apologize for them.

"I can't explain it," said Bengals receiver James Hundon. "Maybe he felt he wanted to be more a part of the action. We were running a lot of "X' plays, which would take him out (in favor of a tight end). I wouldn't blame him."

A franchise player?

In the heat of the moment, players sometimes behave badly and regret it later. This much is perfectly understandable. But when the heat of the moment subsides, a team player makes an effort to make things right.

Carl Pickens is not a team player. Certainly not a rebuilding team player. He is like Albert Belle -- a prickly talent to be tolerated only if you think he will put your team over the top. He is as out of place with the Bengals as a temperamental diva on karaoke night. Yet Coslet invariably defends him, and Sunday raised the possibility of declaring Pickens a "franchise" player to prevent him from attaining free agency at season's end.

In theory, this makes some sense. Great players should not be chased away capriciously, and Pickens is probably the best receiver the Bengals have ever employed. Still, if you can not win with Carl Pickens, there's a lot to be said for living without him.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.