Sunday, April 16, 2000

Teams draft ability not citizenship




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Character counts. In evaluating prospects for the NFL draft, good citizenship is highly prized.

        It ranks right behind speed, size, strength, agility, toughness, durability, hands, medical history, intelligence, escapability, signability and hip snap. All those things being equal — and they never are — you go with the guy with the shortest rap sheet.

        Otherwise, you take the better talent and you take your chances.

        The Cincinnati Bengals are no different than any of their NFL rivals. They want Boy Scouts, but not as much as they want to win. Despite pending murder cases involving two NFL players, and the league's heightened vigilance on character issues, NFL teams continue to draft for need, not niceness.

        The Bengals' first-round selection of Peter Warrick Saturday, their decision not to trade the disagreeable Corey Dillon and their lack of enthusiasm for the exemplary Shaun Alexander indicates the importance of ability and the relative irrelevance of attitude.

        “Character's important,” said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals pro/college personnel director. “But the more ability, the more you tolerate.”

        Warrick spent 10 hours Tuesday picking up trash, partial payment on his debt to society for the illegal discount he accepted last fall at Dillard's. Dillon's police record is longer, and his personality is more prickly. He has vowed to sit out the first 10 games of the season rather than sign a long-term contract with the Bengals.

        Yet if Mike Brown has any qualms about the sort of people he employs, they are often outweighed by cold calculation. By all accounts, Shaun Alexander is a model citizen and an affable fellow, but the Bengals were not convinced he could get the tough yards between the tackles. When the Boone County High School star was selected by the Seattle Seahawks with the 19th pick in the first round, there were no sobs at Spinney Field.

        Bottom line: The Bengals prefer Dillon, and all his baggage, to nicer people who break fewer tackles. If the Bengals had an opportunity to trade Dillon for the chance to draft a younger running back, they did not take it. Dillon is a proven commodity — a three-time 1,000-yard rusher. College backs, however promising, don't always cut it. (See Carter, Ki-Jana).

        If Shaun Alexander seemed an ideal fit on the surface — an engaging local guy who excelled at Alabama — he did not stand up to videotape scrutiny. Personality never has scored a point in the NFL.

        “I think teams are starting to pay a little more attention to (character),” said Richard Katz, Alexander's agent. “But we're not there yet. It's hard to say where it's at, but you get tired of the negativity and you get tired of the guys who are in trouble.”

        Were it not for his misdemeanor theft conviction — and a subsequent two-game suspension — Peter Warrick would likely have won the Heisman Trophy last year at Florida State. If his draft standing slipped, however, it was more likely a matter of a disappointing 40-yard dash run than management moralizing.

        “He made a mistake and he owns up to it,” Brown said. “He has paid the penalties. He may have been the Heisman award winner, and to lose that opportunity is a tremendous blow. He has straightened out everything concerning this and we don't have any concerns about him at all. He should be flying straight and flying high.”

        The Dillard's debacle was not Warrick's first police scrape. In July 1998, he was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest — charges that were later dropped. Whether these incidents were the result of youthful indiscretions or criminal inclinations can only be determined by his future conduct.

        Athletic talent is transient. Character is a constant.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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