Friday, September 10, 1999

Bengals sold their soul




BY PAUL DAUGHERTY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Cincinnati Bengals don't lose their soul in great gobs. They leak it slowly, every time they chase a David Dunn, welcome back a Carl Pickens or keep a James Francis a season too long.

        The last time we saw Pickens, he was tanking it against Tampa Bay and dancing his way off Cinergy Field, singing “This Is It,” the old Kenny Loggins tune.

        Later, Pickens said he was sick of losing (who isn't?) and would retire before playing here again. On Thursday, Pickens stood before a stack of microphones and said, “A person does have a right to change his mind.” Whoa, short retirement, Carl. Maybe he got tired of playing canasta.

        Pickens didn't come back for the money, he said. They never do.

        But this was a cash transaction. All the way to the bank.

        Pickens isn't playing here because he wants to, or because he's excited about it, or because he thinks the '99 Bengals will be much more than the '98 Bengals or any other Bengals he's played for.

        The Bengals didn't bring him back because they think he's a team player or because of the swell influence he'll have on the young guys, those whose eagerness hasn't been crushed by years of losing. James Francis was eager once.

        They didn't bring him back for the glory and pride he has brought to the franchise, the fans and the city. The Bengals brought back Pickens because they think he can help them win games.

        When you deal with the devil, you get what you deserve. In this case, a decade of 3-13s.

It felt bad from the start
        It was a dreary, tense gathering. Coach Bruce Coslet cracked on a reporter for asking a perfectly legitimate question about Pickens' supposed negative influence in the locker room.

        “That's bull (expletive),” said Coslet, after which Mike Brown concluded the festivities by saying, “Thank you for that friendly press conference.”

        Sign your best player, make it seem like an audit.

        Of the Tampa Bay fiasco, a 0-35 season-ender in which more guys quit than Pickens (though none with his flair), Coslet decided: “That wasn't Carl. That was somebody else.”

        Well, OK. But it's not something anyone should forget. It's your best player, an eight-year vet who should be a leader, flipping you off in front of 50,000 people.

        Pickens is a prideful guy who had to swallow a mouthful to come back here. He ended up with the same money the Bengals had offered all along. Pickens went to the high-stakes table with Brown and lost. Here's a tip: Do not bet against Mike Brown at the high-stakes table.

        “I've wanted to play all along, but under certain conditions,” Pickens explained. Like what? Rejoining a team whose defense is no better than last year? A team that's younger than the Bad News Bears?

        “Has anything changed?” someone asked.

        “Other than me signing, no,” Pickens said. At least he was honest.

        “Carl's defending his fort. We're defending ours” was how Brown explained the bitter offseason. Shouldn't they be in the same fort, at least occasionally?

One more half-hearted year
        The Bengals should be instantly better with Pickens. Corey Dillon won't be gang-mugged at the scrimmage line. An offense with Dillon, Pickens, Darnay Scott and Ki-Jana Carter ought to be a bomb in your hand.

        Jeff Blake and Pickens are both playing this year for a rich escape. They're “on the same page,” in football-speak. Maybe they'll tear up the league, then flip the Bengals the bird the Monday after the last game.

        They get what they want — rich and out — and the Bengals get five or seven wins instead of three or five.

        But really, so what? At what point do you ask yourself why you perpetuate failure by welcoming it back, year after year?

        Character matters. If anybody cares.

        Pickens will make $3.523 million to play for the Bengals this year. That's $207,235.29 a week for the next 17 weeks. It's a decent wage.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.

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