- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

The Tampa Bay Bucs’ grounding of Keyshawn Johnson is yet another reason to love the NFL. The league has its imperfections, sure, but it’s the only one of the Big Three — football, baseball, basketball — in which the inmates don’t run the asylum, in which the players don’t have the owners by the nape of the neck. It’s one of the keys to pro football’s susccess, and it’s why Mr. Johnson is on the Bucs’ inactive list this morning, looking like the self-absorbed jerk he is.

Earlier in the month, it was Kevin Johnson, the Browns’ whining wideout, who needed to have the facts of NFL life explained to him. Indeed, his club went the Bucs one better, putting Kevin and his 9.3-yard receiving average on waivers. So far Cleveland seems to be getting along just fine — that is, if its 44-6 win over Arizona on Sunday is any indication.

In the NFL, thank heavens, bosses are still allowed to be bosses. If you blow off workouts, lollygag in practice, miss curfews, disrespect the coach and tell management, “I want out,” as Keyshawn did, they’re likely to grant you your request — at their pleasure rather than yours.

They can do this in pro football, of course, because, unlike other sports, the vast majority of the contracts aren’t guaranteed. Yes, millions are doled out each season in bonuses — signing bonuses, incentive bonuses, workout bonuses, roster bonuses — but, generally speaking, salaries still have to be earned. And even though Keyshawn signed an eight-year, $56 million deal when he joined the Bucs, the team isn’t held hostage by it. It can get rid of him after this season, as it has said it plans to, and not have to pay its temperamental receiver another sou. The resultant cap hit will be sizable, but Tampa Bay, rest assured, will survive.

Few players in the NFL are worth the trouble Johnson has given the Bucs. He’s not a Pro Bowl quarterback, merely an occasional Pro Bowl pass catcher, a kind of latter-day Art Monk. He has never had more than 1,266 receiving yards in a season (the record is 1,848), and his 106 receptions two years ago resulted in only one touchdown. Put together a list of the top 10 wideouts in the game and he might be on it — or he might not. He’s definitely one of the top 10 talkers, though, a self-promotional wizard, which explains why a receiver with his not quite great numbers could be so celebrated.

He’s also, sadly, a man of his time. This is the era of the Me First Receiver — of Randy Moss and Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn and now Johnson & Johnson. The offense, they think, exists for their own glorification. Think of them as the children of Rod Tidwell (he being the egocentric wideout in “Jerry Maguire”). To hear them tell it, they never get enough love … or enough balls thrown their way.

You can debate all day whether the Bucs’ action might have been extreme, but on one level at least, it’s reassuring: Here’s one league that still treats such players the way they deserve to be treated.

In baseball this past season, the Red Sox had to put up with Manny Ramirez’s ridiculousness in the heat of a pennant race. What did Manny get benched for, one game? In the NBA, meanwhile, Vin Baker can hit the bottle for a few years, play at about 50 percent of his ability, and his employers are powerless to do much about it. Guaranteed contracts, in the hands of the wrong athlete, are little more than a license to misbehave.

In the NFL, fortunately, there are limits — and always have been. Ever hear of Cookie Gilchrist? His story is kinda like Keyshawn’s.

Ten weeks into the 1964 season, Gilchrist was leading the American Football League in rushing when the Buffalo Bills abruptly fired him. The Bills were the defending champs — just like Tampa Bay — but Cookie felt they weren’t calling his number enough. So after carrying only five times in the first half of a loss to Boston, he told his backup to take his place. Two days later, the club waived him.

Buffalo quarterback Jack Kemp, ever the politician, worked behind the scenes to get Gilchrist recalled. He convinced him to apologize publicly to the team, then talked coach Lou Saban into letting bygones be bygones. Cookie went on to win the rushing title — and the Bills won the championship again — but in the offseason he was traded to Denver, the Antarctica of the AFL.

There are no reports out of Tampa of any backroom arm-twisting being done by Brad Johnson. But then the Bucs are closer to missing the playoffs than to repeating — and rightly or wrongly, they think they can get by at Keyshawn’s spot with Joe Jurevicius, just off the injured list.

‘Tis a cold world, the NFL. And for Keyshawn Johnson, it could be getting colder. He’ll be 32 next season, his best years likely behind him, and receivers at that stage aren’t in the greatest of demand. Granted, he can still be productive — when you give him the darn ball — but he isn’t a player who scares you particularly. He simply doesn’t have the speed. Never did.

What he has mostly is his mouth. And look where that’s gotten him.


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