"Anyone who doesn't want to be here, please leave," yelled Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis after his team's nationally televised 13-34 drubbing to the New England Patriots in week four of the 2007 season.
Wide receiver Chad Johnson decided to take Lewis up on that offer. But his efforts, and those of teams hoping to acquire the talented receiver, were rebuffed. While most every team got better during draft weekend, the Cincinnati Bengals, in failing to trade Johnson, have all but resigned themselves to another year of mediocrity.
With the recent release of number three receiver Chris Henry for his never-ending off-the-field issues and Johnson threatening a holdout, Cincinnati fans, instead of asking "who dey think gonna beat the Bengals?" have been reduced to asking "who dey gonna throw the ball to next season?"
If the Bengals had taken the Washington Redskins' offer for a 2008 first round pick and a conditional third/first rounder in 2009, they would've had more firepower to do what they ended up doing anyway -- load up on receivers.
Perhaps they could have moved up to secure Michigan wide receiver Mario Manningham -- a gamebreaker who specialized in getting behind defenses -- instead of good, but not game-changing Florida wide receiver Andre Caldwell, who they picked two spots later. ESPN notes that the three receivers drafted "have clean pasts," and references Lewis as saying the Bengals passed on other receivers "with character issues" (i.e., probably Manningham).
But character issues didn't prevent the Bengals from drafting defensive tackle Jason Shirley with their fifth round pick. Shirley was suspended three times during his senior year at Fresno State and faced legal issues for drunk driving and driving on a suspended license. So character doesn't tell the full story.
And in a locker room full of characters and players with character issues, Johnson, an eight-year veteran and five-time Pro Bowler, could do more harm than good if he does report to the team.
THE LARGER LESSON is that keeping around vocal players around who want out is a losing game. Consider the Philadelphia Eagles.
Coming off a 13-3 season and an appearance in Super Bowl 39, the Eagles appeared poised to make a fifth straight run to the NFC Championship. Then wide receiver Terrell Owens decided, on the basis of his self-proclaimed heroic Super Bowl performance of nine returns for 122 yards, just four weeks after suffering an ankle sprain, he was worth more than his paychecks indicated.
When Philly refused to renegotiate, Owens hit the media circuit and attacked quarterback Donovan McNabb for getting winded in the home stretch of the Super Bowl. At one point Owens said that the Eagles would be undefeated if Brett Favre, and not McNabb, was their quarterback. He was deactivated shortly thereafter, and released in the offseason, but not before ripping the locker room in two, with half supporting Owens and the other half McNabb.
In the end, Owens got the money he wanted -- from division rival Dallas Cowboys. The Eagles received no compensation -- just a locker room badly in need of rebuilding and a gaping hole at number one receiver, which is yet to be filled.
Adding insult to injury, the Eagles watched the 2007 postseason from home as every other NFC East team made the playoffs and the New York Giants won the Super Bowl.
When it comes to disgruntled players, it's always better to get something than nothing.
THIS IS TRUE EVERYWHERE but especially in Cincinnati. Respected as Owens was for his production, Johnson has his new teammates in awe.
"I idolize him," said Florida WR Andre Caldwell, the Bengals' third round pick, to ESPN. "That's who I model my game after."
And if Caldwell comes to model his attitude after Johnson's, the team could be in trouble. A player as gregarious and accomplished as Johnson has the influence to take younger players under his wing and spread ill will toward the organization.
Rather than sit out the 2008 season, it's more likely Johnson will report during week ten and log just enough time to gain a credited season toward his pension. If the Bengals are on the brink of the playoffs and Johnson gets them over the hump, he'll be able to cast himself as the savior of a perennially underachieving franchise (as Owens did after Super Bowl 39, even though his team lost).
If he returns and the Bengals falter (or have already faltered), they'll be blamed for allowing one player to distract from the efforts of the other 52 guys who actually want to be there.
History shows that keeping a disgruntled player around for spite ends up hurting the team more than the player. In an era where character is king, the Bengals might be well-served to show some by casting off a malcontent, rather than engaging in a game of chicken with an individual who always saw himself as bigger than the team anyway.
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