How much baggage is too much?
When considering risky players, teams must weigh potential against past problems
CINCINNATI -- They met in the bowels of Paul Brown Stadium on a chilly February afternoon, a stern coach with an open mind and a desperate young man seeking a miracle. Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis knew all the notorious stories about cornerback Adam Jones before that day. Now, as Jones stood outside the team's locker room, Lewis was hearing the player better known as "Pacman" plead his case for the first time. Jones claimed all his past problems were behind him, that the troubled soul who'd been suspended twice by the NFL had grown up. Lewis listened intently, scanning Jones' body language for any inkling of insincerity.
Jones didn't sell himself with words that day. In fact, he was in such horrible shape that Lewis was cursing himself for agreeing to the tryout in the first place. Yet the coach did sense something that intrigued him about the player. So Lewis grudgingly told Jones to come back in six weeks for another look. If Jones couldn't deliver then, he'd better start considering other options.
It has been 2½ years since Jones earned a spot on the Bengals and nobody -- least of all Lewis -- has been complaining about the marriage. That acquisition was the kind of move many other teams wouldn't have felt comfortable making. Every year there are at least a handful of players who fall into the Jones category, meaning their past problems make them serious risks for a potential team. And every year, franchises all around the NFL have to consider the same question the Bengals faced in 2010: How much baggage is too much?
Lewis acknowledged that it is a tough challenge to address. "Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you," he said. This year there are a few high-profile acquisitions who have brought their own well-documented reputations to new franchises. None of their respective teams want to get bitten.
The San Francisco 49ers signed wide receiver Randy Moss despite the fact that he bounced among three teams in 2010 and couldn't find any serious interest before abruptly retiring last summer. Another controversial wide receiver, Terrell Owens, also spent last year out of the league before the Seattle Seahawks recently picked him up. In contrast, the Miami Dolphins just released wide receiver Chad Johnson following his arrest for domestic battery, while former New York Jets wide receiver Plaxico Burress -- who had several disciplinary issues with the Giants before spending 20 months in jail on a weapons charge -- has yet to find a new team. Even 33-year-old running back Travis Henry is looking for work after three years in prison and four out of football.
All of these players were seeking teams willing to place more faith in their potential than their checkered histories. That's never an easy decision for general managers and coaches to make. "At the end of the day, you're trying to minimize distractions in this game," said St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher. "Because those are the things that get you beat. If there is something going on with a player that might affect his focus, there's a good chance it is going to hurt your team."
"You have to take a person-to-person approach whenever you're in these situations," Lewis said. "My thing is that you've got 53 guys on your team and you want them all moving in the same direction. You can't have one person who is going to go against the tide. You have to know he's on board."
'Can the guy play?'
No franchise can predict how a risky player will impact its team. The Washington Redskins gave defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth a $100 million contract in 2009 -- despite concerns about his work ethic and temper -- and watched him produce two disappointing seasons before leaving town. On the other hand, the Philadelphia Eagles (who signed Pro Bowl quarterback Michael Vick in 2009 after he finished a 21-month prison sentence) and Minnesota Vikings (who traded for Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen in 2008, when the Kansas City Chiefs were concerned about his two DUI convictions) both hit it big with players saddled with baggage.
Talent was the major reason both players made their respective franchises believe in their potential. That factor tends to be hard to overlook for teams that want any competitive advantage. As Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said, "I've been asked my opinions on risky players a lot during my [16-year] career. I won't lie: The first thing I usually say is, 'Can the guy play?'"
"A lot of these decisions really do come down to situations," said Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. "If you really need a guy, it's easier to bring a player in. You can become a lot more accepting of some things when that's the case."
One of the biggest questions teams have to ask when considering a player with baggage is what the franchise can tolerate. Some are more concerned about whether a player will disrupt team chemistry. Other franchises won't even touch a player with too many legal run-ins. The current climate in the league -- where personal conduct violations can lead to lengthy suspensions -- makes it imperative that coaches and general managers know exactly what they're dealing with in regards to a player's maturity.
Some general managers, such as Arizona's Rod Graves, believe it's best to remain conservative with such players, saying, "You ultimately win with character." Others see things differently. "There are certain things that some teams find more tolerable," said one NFC executive. "They can deal with substance abuse because they can understand it. ... But brutal violence is what really makes people nervous. That's why the Michael Vick deal was so hard. People didn't know how to view it. The way the league is today, the value of a [risky] player really has to outweigh the attention that will come with having him."
Unlike college players who come into the league with character issues, veterans with baggage pose a different set of challenges to teams. When the Bengals decided to sign rookie free-agent linebacker Vontaze Burfict, whose reputation for undisciplined play had caused him to go undrafted, it cost the team only a $1,000 signing bonus. A veteran's price tag is going to run from the hundreds of thousands into the million-dollar range. The expense alone means there has to be greater concern about the risk.
Cincinnati's decision to sign Jones was an interesting gamble because his past was so sordid. He became the face of Goodell's personal conduct policy precisely because of his inability to act right. Jones had numerous legal run-ins while playing for the Tennessee Titans, and his involvement in a 2007 altercation at a Las Vegas strip club -- which led to three people being shot -- resulted in a one-year suspension. Jones also served a six-game suspension while playing for the Dallas Cowboys in 2008. At one point, the 2005 first-round pick missed 22 of 28 games for issues that occurred off the field.
After signing Jones to a two-year contract in February 2010, the Bengals invested heavily in supporting him. It's even more telling that Lewis would take Jones after enduring multiple player problems in a 12-month period between January 2006 and January 2007. Nine Bengals players were arrested during that time period. However, two people helped Jones' cause: Fisher, his head coach in Tennessee, and Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who coached Jones in Dallas.
Both saw Jones as a talented athlete worth saving. It helped that Lewis also had previous success with risky acquisitions such as Owens and running back Cedric Benson.
"Adam didn't just need a relationship with me," Lewis said. "He's needed one with his position coach, his defensive coordinator, the security people, the team chaplain, the trainers, the front office, everybody. And he's been all in from day one. His talent level is so great that he got away with taking shortcuts before. He's had to learn a lot of fundamental stuff, from how to eat right to talking to people to formulating thoughts when he's asked a question. We've tried to help with that."
"The support has been huge from the top down," said Jones. "When I got here, I knew it had to work. Sometimes you get to the point where you know you have to be a man. I realized I couldn't let myself down anymore."
Jones's efforts behind the scenes -- he has spoken to kids around Cincinnati as well as at the league's rookie symposium -- also speak to another factor in deciding on risky players: being able to distinguish between their real personalities and their images.
"You have to delve into the issues and decide if you can turn a grape into wine," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "But you also have to understand that every guy who sits across from you says he's going to change. I've never once heard of a player saying, 'I'm not going to change.' You can get sincerity in an interview but you have to see how he handles things once he's out there."
Moss and Owens both likely earned their current jobs because of the impressions they left on their last employers. Though Moss lasted just four weeks in Minnesota after New England traded him there in 2010, Fisher thoroughly enjoyed coaching Moss in Tennessee after claiming him off waivers. The coach once even found Moss tutoring the team's younger receivers at 7 a.m. on their off day. Moss, who has been known to slack off during games, also impressed Fisher by staying focused when he was used mainly as a decoy.
Owens had a similar impact in Cincinnati in 2010 after being a self-obsessed destructive force in places like San Francisco and Philadelphia. Along with being the team's best receiver, he educated his teammates on why he'd played in six Pro Bowls. Owens broke his hand in practice on a Thursday and played in a game on Sunday. He sat in front of the meeting rooms, with highlighter in hand, and gave his fellow receivers a sense of how to take notes. If Owens couldn't practice because of injury, he'd always have his playbook with him on the field while he watched.
Lewis wouldn't have seen those qualities if he hadn't trusted the support Owens received from former Bengals such as Johnson and quarterback Carson Palmer. "I had the chance to talk with Terrell before we signed him and again after we signed him," Lewis said. "He had coaching issues, team issues, locker room issues, and we got it all on the table. Terrell's problem is that he thinks he can get open and catch a pass on every play even though you can't always get the ball to him. But I always say there is T.O. and there is Terrell. Terrell is a hell of a person."
Regardless of the risks teams take on players with baggage, the greatest factor in the decisions tend to have little to do with coaching or front-office support. Instead, it's the locker room that ultimately decides a troubled player's fate. If a team has enough strong veteran leaders, it usually feels more comfortable rolling the dice. If a franchise is in rebuilding mode or winning with a young roster, the last thing it wants is a disruptive presence.
The Dolphins said as much when they released Johnson one day after his arrest for alleged domestic battery against his wife. He hadn't been productive in New England and his flamboyant personality didn't seem to fit with the no-nonsense approach of new Miami coach Joe Philbin.
"If there is too much 'I' or 'me' in a guy, that's going to distract from the team," Graves said. "There are some teams that have been lucky when it comes to taking chances. But a lot depends on the team structure and whether your leaders can influence the people you bring in. Without that, a player with baggage can draw away from what you're trying to accomplish."
Added Gonzalez: "Most of the guys who are risks are leaders. And they can lead you in the wrong direction if you let them."
Lewis hasn't found much reason to second-guess Jones, whose major issue in Cincinnati has been remaining healthy (he has played in only 13 games the past two seasons). As fans lined up for autographs from players after a practice inside Paul Brown Stadium, Jones continued signing long after security guards concluded the session. Jones said that has always been his approach. "I've never had a problem giving back like that," he said. Still, he's making the kind of progress that makes life easier for his coach.
As Lewis said, the most important factor in gambling on risky players is understanding everything that comes with it. "Adam doesn't have the option of regressing because he's gone if he does," Lewis said. "That's the other side of this -- you have to be willing to pull the trigger if it's not working. You have to be able to go upstairs and say, 'Let's move on.' No matter what you do, you always have to know it might not work out for the best."
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