Sunday, January 02, 2000

Pickens not so easy to ignore now

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Carl Pickens is not the problem. He is the symptom.

        He is the sign of a team in doubt about its direction, a player confident enough in his future to give voice to common frustrations. He is not the lone malcontent among the Cincinnati Bengals — though that is his reputation — but the loudest member of a sizable mob.

        When Pickens on Wednesday questioned the wisdom of retaining Bruce Coslet to coach the Bengals, he was expressing a sentiment widely shared among the players. That he quickly recanted indicates only that the Bengals were able to intimidate him, apparently through a threat to his paycheck.

        The problem, however, persists. Mike Brown has succeeded in silencing his prickly pass receiver, at least for the moment, but Pickens' lament lingers in the air like the industrial stench at Spinney Field.

        “Bruce has never had a winning record, here or anywhere else,” Pickens said. “So why would you bring him back?”

        It's a blunt question, and a fair one. Even those of us who believe the Bengals' core problems are mainly the fault of management cannot automatically excuse the coaches. With the Bengals, there's always plenty of blame to go around. Pickens, as the senior player and most accomplished performer on the team, has the right (and perhaps the obligation) to challenge his bosses to do better. Speaking out also can be an effective tool to get yourself traded out of a bad situation.

When he's right, he's right
        Brown might stifle dissent by releasing dissenters, as he did last season with punter Lee Johnson. But no enlightened executive can hope to quell unrest through terror alone. Until the players can be convinced management has a clue, a plan and a shot at success, the Bengals will never be far from another mutiny.

        Brown needs to demonstrate to his team and its long-suffering spectators that the status quo is unsatisfactory; that enduring problems will be addressed; that the worst team of the '90s has learned something from all of its losses. Instead, by deciding to keep his coaching staff intact with one game to go in a 4-11 season, Brown has invited a backlash.

        In a logical world, Brown could not absolve his coaches without holding someone else accountable. Here, however, the front office is composed largely of Brown's relatives. Accountability, therefore, probably means a couple of new scouts.

        Pro football is cyclical in nature, but the Bengals' down cycle has lasted too long to be written off as luck. The Bengals are 40-87 since Pickens was drafted in 1992. No athlete can be expected to endure such prolonged humiliation without expressing some frustration.

        At one time, Pickens' midweek outburst would have seemed out of line: petulant, presumptuous and easily dismissed. Today, Pickens complains as the voice of experience and the advocate of standards. Opinion polls support his stance. Sportswriters who have found Pickens eminently disagreeable now find themselves in grudging agreement.

Pickens isn't the problem
        During Pickens' prolonged absence from training camp, Brown observed that the club wasn't taking much heat about the holdout. He attributed this anomaly — correctly, I think — to Pickens' antipathy toward the press.

        “You hate him,” Brown told reporters, “more than you dislike me.”

        Because Pickens has been such a difficult character, there is a natural tendency to take the other side of any issue that involves him. Often, no bias is necessary. When Pickens quit on the team at the end of last season, there was no way to put positive spin on the story.

        Still, Coslet tried.

        “That wasn't Carl,” Coslet insisted. “That was somebody else.”

        Coslet supported Pickens at the cost of his own credibility. He must feel betrayed by Pickens' comments. He must know, however, that the Bengals' problems run deeper.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at


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