Saturday, September 04, 1999

Brown should finally cut Pickens loose

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The time has come for tactical retreat. If Mike Brown can not persuade Carl Pickens to return to the Bengals, he should consider trading him for someone more cooperative.

        He should not continue to hold on to his holdout wide receiver when reconciliation is less likely than a bull market in Confederate War Bonds. He would be wise to make the best deal available and be glad to be rid of a poisonous personality.

        If he can't field a winner, Brown at least should learn to cut his losses.

        Letting Pickens stew in his self-imposed exile has a certain vindictive appeal, a certain principled purity and nearly no pragmatic value to a team perpetually short of players. Just because Pickens is silly and/or spiteful enough to spurn more than $3 million is no reason for the Bengals to regard their investment in him as irretrievably lost.

        Yet that's about where things stood as the Bengals finished a winless preseason Friday with a 28-16 loss to Atlanta and Pickens begins to face the prospect of missing out on six-figure game checks. Neither side has shown a smidgen of flexibility. It would appear that obstinates attract.

Three choices
        When Bengals personnel director Jim Lippincott last spoke to Pickens' agent, Steve Zucker, he said, “Our best offer's been made.” Lippincott outlined Pickens' alternatives as follows: 1) To accept the team's three-year contract offer; 2) To sign a one-year tender offer; or 3) To retire.

        “Carl has always been a man of his word,” Lippincott said Friday. “He has said over and over and over that he won't come back. The only reason I think he may come back is because he didn't get wealthy by walking away from $3.3 million.”

        Since Pickens carries the Bengals' “franchise player” tag, the team is obliged to pay him the average salary of the top five players at his position. It also means, theoretically, that Pickens cannot sign with anyone else unless that team is prepared to give the Bengals two first-round draft choices as compensation.

        “He is one of our best players — maybe our best player,” Lippincott said. “Why let him go (for less) if you're going to have to face him?”

        Lippincott has a point. In the Sporting News' rankings of the NFL's best 100 players, Pickens was the only Bengal (No.52). He is already the team's all-time leading receiver and though insiders allege he has lost a step, he was the recipient of 82 passes only last season.

        Even so, the market for surly, slowing 29-year-old receivers is not all that strong. Brown so far has insisted on at least one first-round choice in any deal involving Pickens, but even this reduced price would seem a ploy. It enables the Bengals to claim there is no real market for Pickens' services.

Money time
        Until now, the strategy made some sense. It's always possible that Pickens, having escaped the drudgery of training camp with no loss of income, suddenly will show up at Spinney Field to reclaim his job as the regular season starts.

        “I'd be surprised,” Brown said. “I am operating on the premise that he will do what he says ...”

        Zucker floated the idea of asking his client to report on the condition that the Bengals agree not to assign him a “franchise” tag in 2000, but that's the closest the two sides have come to compromise. If Pickens is prepared to miss game checks, the Bengals should start considering him a depreciating asset. A future draft choice beats an empty locker almost every time.

        Brown's concern is that caving in to Pickens' demands, and letting him go for less than full value, would set a precedent. The Bengals' position would be perfectly reasonable if the team weren't so perfectly lousy.

        The Bengals' most remarkable achievement during the preseason was to lower expectations thought irreducible. So much help is needed in so many places that you can't blame Carl Pickens for wanting out.

        If the Bengals are to get any better, they may have to oblige him.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail. Message him at


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