Thursday, May 20, 1999

Sorry, Carl, you're stuck with Bengals




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Carl Pickens is cornered. His leverage is little and his friends are few. He can hold his breath in defiance of the Cincinnati Bengals and cause less lost sleep than a dripping faucet.

        Pickens is a great player and a colossal pain, perhaps the best receiver and most difficult personality the local football firm has ever employed. If he should choose to sit out the 1999 season in pursuit of a trade, to forsake at least $3.5 million in salary, it is at worst a mixed blessing.

        Chances are good Carl will cave before he blows his first six-figure game check. But if he should persist in his Bengals boycott, chances are no one will cry.

        Pickens is attempting to pressure the Bengals into sending him somewhere else, to escape the “franchise player” tag that tethers him to the team at a time he otherwise might explore free agency.

        His position is perfectly understandable and entirely unsympathetic. No other team has been willing to meet Mike Brown's price. No other line of work is likely to pay Pickens as much as he stands to lose this fall. No other conclusion is possible except that Pickens is trying to bluff the fellow holding all of the aces.

Bullying Brown isn't smart
        The Bengals are fresh off a 3-13 season, their sixth losing campaign in Pickens' seven years. Most players would prefer to play in a more encouraging environment, and none could be blamed for wanting to seek his fortune where winning is an attitude rather than a fantasy.

        That said, Pickens is stuck. The National Football League's Collective Bargaining Agreement allows each team the recourse of protecting a “franchise player,” provided he is paid at least the average of the top five salaries at his position. Facing the probability Pickens would bolt, the Bengals invoked this right and agreed to pay the player a minimum of $3,531,000 for the 1999 season.

        This is decent money, even by today's standards of professional perspiration, but agent Steve Zucker says his client will sit out the season rather than do Mike Brown's bidding. (Brown declined comment on Pickens Wednesday.) Presumably, Pickens has stashed enough cash to make good on his threat. What good his threat can do is another matter.

        Brown is not easily bullied and is exceedingly stubborn. Only last month, he rejected an offer of nine New Orleans draft choices for the rights to his No. 3 selection. Conceivably, the Bengals owner suddenly could shift gears and stop driving hard bargains. Conceivably, Carl Pickens could wake up one morning as Regis Philbin.

        Brown's price for Pickens thus far has included a first-round draft choice, a demand Zucker contends (and the market confirms) is unrealistic. That price could change if Akili Smith's contract creates salary cap problems and/or rookie receiver Craig Yeast deserves starting status. Eventually, Mike Brown might want to cut his losses.

His just desserts
        Still, to cut Pickens a break is to reward a player for pouting, for insolence, for arrogance, for embarrassing teammates and coaches, for fostering the franchise's mercenary, me-first image, for holding his breath until he turns blue. There are those within the Bengals organization — players, coaches, executives — who would be hard-pressed to choose between another season with Pickens and a sharp stick in the eye.

        Other than Anthony Munoz and a couple of quarterbacks, Carl Pickens might be the most accomplished player the Bengals have had. He holds the team's career and single-season receiving records and he was best when it mattered most — in a close game, near the goal line. Had he been slightly more civil, he could have been enormously popular. Instead, his demeanor always detracted from his deeds.

        Now, it's payback time. Pickens wants a favor, and he has no old debts to call in. He could hold out the whole year with no assurance that the Bengals wouldn't renew his “franchise” tag next season. It's a fine mess, of his own making.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE