- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Washington Redskins are deep in negotiations on a multi-year contract extension for middle linebacker Antonio Pierce and could complete a deal in coming days, sources familiar with the situation said yesterday.

The sides have exchanged four proposals since coach Joe Gibbs approached Pierce in early November, apparently during the week of the Nov.7 game against the Detroit Lions. Pierce, 26, is scheduled to be a first-time unrestricted free agent this spring.

Pierce’s deal likely would be for four or five years. Further details were unclear, though it appeared Pierce was seeking a signing bonus in the $5million to $6million range.

Such a contract would have been unimaginable before the season, when Pierce opted to return to Washington for the one-year tender amount for a restricted free agent ($628,000), rather than sign a multi-year but low-money deal with the Minnesota Vikings.

But Pierce has emerged as one of the premier players on the Redskins’ second-ranked defense. He leads the team with 127 tackles and, perhaps more importantly, has thrived making all the defensive calls from the middle linebacker’s position.

Pierce didn’t comment on contract specifics but did speak frankly about his aspirations for his real NFL payday. Asked whether he wants to return to Washington or test the market, the former undrafted rookie out of Arizona said he simply wants the same type of treatment the Redskins have become famous for giving to free agents from other teams.

“I just want to be treated fairly,” Pierce said. “However you want to take that, I just want to be treated fairly.”

Asked to elaborate, Pierce said, “Even if I came from another team, and the Redskins need me. Whatever they feel like my value is to this team. I feel like I do anything they ask me to do. I still play special teams. Whatever they ask me to do, I try to do, and I want to be valued at that — rather than the guy that came in as the undrafted free agent. That’s four years ago.”

Lucky for Pierce, that is precisely how Gibbs plans to develop the team. While owner Dan Snyder’s private plane, “Redskins One,” became a symbol in recent years of the team’s red-carpet treatment for free agents, Gibbs has said repeatedly that he wants to find a group of “core Redskins” and build around them.

The team’s focus, it seems, is shifting from Redskins One to Redskin Park.

“I don’t know about the past,” Gibbs said when told of Pierce’s comments. “What we want is the core group people, the ones who have played for us and played hard and been productive, we want to honor that. Those are the people we’re saying we want to keep together. … That’s the most important thing we do — pick our players and keep them together.”

Gibbs, assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams and teammates left little doubt that Pierce is in that core.

“He’s a Redskin through and through, and he’s the kind of person that, as we have the foundation built around here, I think he’s a model,” Williams said. “We would really like for A.P. to be here for as long as he’d like to be here. I think he knows that. He and I sit down behind closed doors and talk long and hard about his future and the kind of production he’s [had]. He’s one of my more proud moments in coaching.”

Said defensive end Renaldo Wynn: “He’s a general. I call him a general because he makes the calls, recognizes formations, does his homework. He prepares to take the field like a champion. He deserves everything good that happens to him this year because he’s proved himself.”

Pierce nearly signed last spring with the Vikings, who at the time, according to Pierce, were offering him a chance to start pretty much uncontested. But Minnesota was only paying backup money, and Pierce figured he could do better by playing another year in Washington and hitting the market unrestricted in 2005.

His gamble paid off. Although Washington signed veteran linebackers Marcus Washington and Mike Barrow to six-year, $22.5million and six-year, $15.1million contracts, respectively, Barrow never played while battling severe knee tendinitis. Pierce stepped in and has had a career year.

Pierce’s 6-foot-1, 235-pound frame doesn’t make him a natural for middle linebacker, but his intelligence — something former coach Marty Schottenheimer raved about in 2001 — is perhaps even a bigger factor for the thinking man’s position.

Whereas former middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter could blow up a ball carrier or totally bust the play, Pierce is pretty much in the right position all the time. And recently he has started to play with increased confidence and nastiness, which he attributes to feeling as though he has gained his teammates’ total trust.

“I know that my teammates know that I can make a play just like them,” Pierce said. “I broke a lot of odds, and I’m still out to prove people wrong who think I can’t do it for 16 straight games.”

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