Johnson, others have worn out welcome
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Now the balancing act begins for the Kansas City Chiefs.
In two weeks, running back Larry Johnson(notes) will come off suspension, and the franchise will be faced with yet another pivotal decision: how to handle a wayward star who has seemingly worn out his welcome with the coaching staff and front office. A league source familiar with the situation said Thursday morning that despite speculation to the contrary, the Chiefs haven’t decided to cut Johnson in the immediate future. However, his standing with the team beyond this season seems almost sure to have been sealed.
While much of the controversy has surrounded Johnson’s recent homophobic slurs on Twitter (as well as his criticism of head coach Todd Haley), it can’t be the only thing for which the franchise is worried. Johnson also went on a rant about his “cake” – slang for money – and at one point made disparaging remarks about a fan earning “5 dolla[rs]” an hour. Considering the Chiefs are supported largely by a fan base that has long been comprised of a modest and hard-working middle class, it’s not something that is sitting well with the franchise.
Of course, the simplest reaction would be to cut Johnson, who was already on a “one chance” basis with the new regime, and who has been largely ineffective on game day. But it’s really not that simple. First, Haley and general manager Scott Pioli haven’t been around long enough to know what kind of impact would be felt in the locker room by cutting Johnson. The new regime is still working on establishing trust with some of the team’s other veterans, and casting off Johnson without getting the pulse of other players could stunt that process. Second, the coaching staff and front office don’t want to send a signal that players can simply push their way off the roster by blasting Haley or making inappropriate comments.
Indeed, the best option on the table, and the one that seems likeliest, is Johnson being sent to football purgatory for the remainder of 2009, and then released in the offseason. As we’ve seen in recent months, Haley hasn’t been shy about altering the team’s depth chart since taking over in the offseason. So it stands to reason that Johnson is likely to be dropped to the bottom of the depth chart at his position, and left to languish as an expensive example to the rest of the locker room that bad behavior and insubordination will have embarrassing consequences.
There was already ample thought given to cutting or attempting to trade Johnson in the offseason when Pioli and Haley took over, according to a league source. And when that didn’t happen, the staff sent Johnson a clear message: the slate was being cleaned and he was being given one shot. That opportunity essentially ended when Johnson went on his Twitter rant.
Eventually, his employment with the Chiefs will end, too. That probably would have happened no matter what, with Johnson due $6 million in base salary and a roster bonus, and then a few additional bonuses tied to games played and workouts. Even before the latest fiasco, his production on the field – even if blunted by a poor offensive line – wasn’t living up to his salary.
In truth, the latest problems only cemented a decision that was already in the works. Johnson’s welcome in Kansas City was wearing thin long ago. The latest events only sped up the inevitable.
Here are a few more NFL players who, for various reasons, could be moving on this offseason …
Shawne Merriman(notes), LB, San Diego Chargers
He hasn’t registered a sack, or been entirely healthy, since the 2007 season. He wants a long-term deal that management hasn’t, and likely will never be, inclined to give him. And in what might be an indication of his tenuous standing in other corners of the NFL, a league source said the Chargers got exactly one phone call about Merriman’s trade availability before the deadline (hard to believe that but there is no evidence to the contrary). And did we mention that Merriman’s eventual replacement, Larry English(notes), is already on the roster?
English’s two sacks the past three games might be the first sign of Merriman’s demise with the Chargers this offseason. With so many other players who need long-term deals, he’s simply not a priority. And the friction between Merriman and general manager A.J. Smith, over Smith’s criticism of the defense, isn’t going to help matters. There’s just no denying that Merriman has looked like the odd man out in this franchise for a long time. And even if he’s hit with the franchise tag (or a tender offer, depending on what happens with the collective bargaining negotiations), signs point to a faceoff this coming offseason. Like Drew Brees(notes) and Michael Turner(notes) before him, a change of scenery might not be the worst thing for him in 2010.
Ted Ginn, WR, Miami Dolphins
Ginn has been demoted twice by the Dolphins, first when he was taken off special teams duty season, and now Wednesday, when the team appeared to begin reducing his role in the base offense. Of late, he has appeared to lack confidence and focus, dropping balls in addition to his already maddening style of finesse play.
Six games into his third season, Ginn has never truly shown a consistent ability to be a No. 1 receiver, which was expected to be his role when he was selected No. 9 overall in the 2007 NFL draft. While he’s got a strider’s speed, he doesn’t have the explosion of a player like the Philadelphia Eagles’ DeSean Jackson(notes). He doesn’t get off the line well against contact, he isn’t good at creating yards after the catch, and he hasn’t really become polished from a technical standpoint. In a way, he’s becoming reminiscent of Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Troy Williamson(notes), who despite his athletic skill, just never became dependable or technically sound.
Ginn probably needs to be in an offense where he’s the No. 3 or No. 4 option, where he’s facing a nickel cornerback and doesn’t have the pressure to constantly excel. That’s not what you want to be saying about a high first-round draft pick, but that’s the reality. One thing is for sure: his experience in Miami got off to a rough start, and he doesn’t look like he’s ever recovered mentally.
Brady Quinn(notes), QB, Cleveland Browns
His house being put up for sale supposedly means nothing, but the unwillingness of Cleveland’s coaching staff to play him over Derek Anderson(notes) is telling. Coach Eric Mangini has already stuck with Anderson through the worst possible performances, so unless something drastically changes, Quinn is almost certain to be elsewhere in 2010. Not that his contract will be an issue. The team is well on the way to insuring he won’t see valuable salary escalators that would kick in should he play 70 percent of the team’s snaps.
Indeed, the quarterback issues throughout the rest of the league will almost certainly make Quinn a semi-valuable commodity going into the offseason. Multiple teams will be looking for long-term alternatives at starter, and Quinn almost certainly will ask for the chance to seek out potential trade destinations. And unless Mangini and the Browns actually want him as the starter in 2010 and are merely trying to thwart a jump in salary, he’s likely to be granted a chance to shop himself.
Tommie Harris(notes), DT, Chicago Bears
It’s saying something that Harris is considered by some in Chicago’s organization to be the fourth-best defensive player, behind the linebacker trio of Lance Briggs(notes), Pisa Tinoisamoa(notes) and Brian Urlacher(notes). He has seen a decline as a consistently dominant player since hurting his left knee early in the 2007 season, which came only months before the Bears gave him a four-year $40 million extension.
While still remarkably young for his experience level (he just turned 26 in April), Harris hasn’t recorded a sack in his last nine games, and continues to look like a shade of the player he was in 2006. Even three of his five sacks last season came against the Detroit Lions and St. Louis Rams’ hapless offensive lines. And while his contract extension was front-loaded, his $3.735 million salary next season isn’t exactly dust in the wind. However, the issue is larger than just money. It’s starting to become a question of working through pain and Harris’ penchant for missing practice time. Since 2007, occasional missed time turned into a once-a-week absence. Then came a weeklong shutdown leading into the game against the Cincinnati Bengals, for which Harris was scratched but later suggested he was healthy enough to play.
And while coach Lovie Smith allowed Harris to save face by suggesting he sat him because he wants Harris fully healthy, the coaching staff is losing patience with his practice issues. If he continues to struggle on the field and continually misses practice time, not only does he become a wasted paycheck, but it sets a bad precedent. And in the larger picture he’s not nearly as valuable as some assume. Two defensive tackle-needy NFC teams said before the trade deadline that Harris had little value because of his chronically sore left knee. It’s simply not an insignificant problem for a 300-pound defensive tackle whose game is predicated on explosiveness. Even at 26, that’s a lot of issues to deal with on an annual basis.
Clinton Portis(notes), RB, Washington Redskins
The inevitable changes with the coaching staff could have plenty to do with Portis’ situation, but he clearly has never meshed all that well with the current regime. Moreover, he’s struggling behind an offensive line that isn’t opening holes, and he has been minimized on third downs, with Ladell Betts(notes) taking more of a role in the passing game. The larger issue is starting to become Portis’ age. He turns 29 before the start of next season, and isn’t an explosive, big-play running back at this stage of his career. Depending on what the next coaching staff wants, he still represents a solidly tradable commodity for other teams that may only be a piece or two away from a sustained playoff run. And with a large chunk of his $7.19 million salary guaranteed next season, Portis will be entering the bloated back end of a deal the team likely won’t want to pay starting in 2011. He knows that, which makes this offseason the last, best striking time for a trade and new contract that will provide him additional guaranteed money through his last few prime years.