- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

Washington Redskins players yesterday were divided over whether the club should sign defensive tackle Darrell Russell when he becomes a free agent.

Redskins players view themselves as a group of more or less solid citizens. Now they wonder whether Russell, who was reinstated yesterday from 1-1/2 years of suspension for drugs and other legal travails, would be a disruptive or perhaps even dangerous influence.

“I think the organization has done a good job of really checking guys out and making sure they’re going to fit with our philosophy and just with the reputation the Redskins have,” tackle Jon Jansen said. “It’s a class organization. You don’t want to bring one or two guys in and completely destroy a reputation you’ve spent 50 years building.”

Russell was released by Oakland shortly after his reinstatement, a Raiders official said last night. Now Russell almost certainly will clear waivers because of his $9million or $10million salary (there was some dispute yesterday as to the exact figure). Few NFL teams have the salary cap room to absorb such a number, and none would be willing to do so for such a risky player.

Redskins sources have said the team would be interested in signing Russell, the second pick overall in 1997 and a Pro Bowl player in 1998 and 1999. In the classic risk-reward debate, the Redskins believe it would be worth the gamble on Russell’s character to get a potentially dominant player at a suspect position. Some club officials are even seeking to add a more nasty element to this year’s roster.

Coaches and team officials couldn’t comment on Russell while he was under contract with the Raiders, but Redskins players had plenty to say. Defensive end Regan Upshaw, who played in 2000 and 2001 alongside Russell in Oakland, was hopeful Washington would sign him.

“This is how I look at D-Russ: He’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen at the three-technique [pass-rushing defensive tackle position],” Upshaw said. “He’s had off-the-field problems; we all know about it. If he’s got himself together off the field — and everybody’s got problems in life — then I don’t see why not. You’d be getting Darrell Russell for a steal.”

Russell’s first suspension came in 2001 when he missed four games for failing to comply with the NFL’s drug policy. A few months later, a positive test for ecstasy earned him a one-year suspension, a penalty that eventually was made indefinite by the league.

While suspended, Russell was charged with drugging a woman with the “date-rape drug” GHB and videotaping two friends raping her. Russell was charged as an accomplice in the Jan.31, 2002, assault. But all 25 felony counts were dropped Sept.12, 2002, for a lack of evidence.

That’s not the type of “off-field incident” Redskins players are used to. In recent years, several players have been charged with drinking-and-driving violations, and in 2000 since-released defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield was arrested following an altercation with his wife. However, Kim Stubblefield showed no signs of injury, and charges were dropped when the commonwealth attorney declined to prosecute.

“We haven’t really had problems,” said cornerback Champ Bailey, one of the longest-tenured Redskins with fellow 1999 draftee Jansen. “Maybe this guy gets a DUI or something. Those are unfortunate incidents that you could probably avoid but not major. We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good people.”

Asked whether he was concerned about bringing in Russell, Bailey replied, “I’ll let management worry about that. I don’t think he could be that bad. Of course, when Daryl Gardener came here, he had a rep. He came here and didn’t have a problem. Hopefully [Russell] can come here and turn out to be a Pro Bowl tackle, which is what he was before he started messing up.”

Gardener is the Redskins’ best-case scenario. He was a force for Washington’s defense in 2002 after signing in training camp with questions about his attitude. The Redskins got him at a budget price, and he earned their player of the year award. Then in the offseason, the club let Denver assume the risk of a six-year, $33million contract.

Now club officials believe they can sign Russell on the cheap. If he plays well, they have made the right move. If he plays poorly, they have lost little — unless, as some players think, there are off-field impacts.

“If you bring him in here, is he going to turn me into a bad person? I don’t think so,” Jansen said. “[But] you’ve got certain guys who are leaders, and certain guys who are followers. … There is the risk that he could have an effect on some guys, maybe some young guys.”

And speaking privately, some players were more specific in their concerns. Some wondered whether they would be as casual about bringing their wives and children to Redskin Park with Russell around.

Upshaw, though, said a player’s talent should be weighed above all else.

“You don’t get paid to be a character guy,” Upshaw said. “You get paid to be a football player. If you want to win football games, then you’ve got to get the best players in here and deal with whatever their character issues are.”

A source familiar with Russell described him as immature but not a bad person. In Oakland, the source said, he frequently was late to meetings and practices, and he never accepted blame for his missteps.

Now the Redskins must determine whether Russell has grown up and how he might impact his new teammates.

“That’s something that the department upstairs and the coaching staff has to weigh,” linebacker Jessie Armstead said. “If his head is in the right place and he’s doing the right things, then the guy deserves a second chance. If he’s not in the right way, then why bring him in?”

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