BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals began divorce proceedings with Carl Pickens today when they excused him from this weekend's mandatory minicamp, all but assuring the franchise's all-time receiver won't play in Cincinnati again.
Citing the best interests of the club, Bengals officials indicated they wanted to get a fresh start without Pickens, their former Pro Bowler who last December ripped management for bringing back head coach Bruce Coslet this season.
"We are working to make an arrangement that will separate Carl from the Bengals," said Jim Lippincott, the club's director of pro/college personnel. "The arrangement is not completed, but there is a high likelihood it will be done soon. Given these circumstances, it serves no purpose for Carl or for the team to have him practicing here this weekend."
When the nameplate on Pickens' locker was taken down this afternoon, one high-profile receiver was apparently on the way out. But one was coming in as first-round draft pick Peter Warrick arrived for his first day of work as a pro.
He still wouldn't say Norm Nixon is his agent, but there's no indecision around Spinney Field concerning Warrick. He figures to be Pickens' replacement at split end opposite Darnay Scott.
"I was shocked ... I didn't think they'd release (Pickens). He's an impact player," Warrick said. "But I've got my homeboy back there (in) Ron Dugans and he's going to step it up, too."
Dugans, Warrick's fellow Florida State receiver and the Bengals' third round pick, flew into Cincinnati today with Warrick. The Bengals have Warrick and Dugans at the same X position, but the roommates took a walking tour of downtown from the Regal Hotel and were greeted by some people who recognized them.
"We're two great players, and we're friends helping each other out," Warrick said.
They'll have to help out the Bengals now that Pickens is looking more and more like a former Bengal. There are no trades on the horizon, but with Coslet convening a 6 p.m. team meeting today, club officials felt it was a good time to excuse Pickens a day after they told him they expected him at camp.
Also in the mix is a grievance the NFL Players Association has filed against the Bengals and three other teams regarding the franchise tag for free agents. The NFLPA argues the clubs broke the spirit of the tag when they signed their franchise free agents to one-year deals before signing long-term contracts, such as the Bengals did with Pickens last September. They argue the Bengals should lose their tag for the duration of Pickens' five-year deal. But apparently the NFLPA is mulling dropping the grievance if Pickens is released.
"Carl's pretty happy," said his agent, Steve Zucker, who has been trying to get Pickens out of Cincinnati since the end of the season. "It certainly looks like they're trying to move him. It's unusual."
Pickens, who pocketed $8 million of his $23.2 million deal last year in bonus and salary, caught 530 balls for 63 touchdowns during eight volatile seasons in Cincinnati. But he's best known for having a reputation as a locker-room malcontent. While many of his teammates defended him, others acknowledged it was a step to clear the club of negativity.
"If a guy doesn't want to be here, the team has to do whatever it has to, to make it happen," said free safety Darryl Williams, who came here with Pickens in the 1992 NFL Draft and returns this season as a free agent. "From past years, Pickens showed he didn't want to be here. I think he's going to be happy and I think the Bengals are going to be happy. Definitely in the locker room."
With Pickens possibly on the way out, second-year quarterback Akili Smith emerges as the biggest presence in the locker room. But he was careful to pay homage to his past heroics.
"If they want to excuse Carl to get rid of some of the negativity in the locker room, they felt that was the best move," Smith said. "Hopefully we won't look back on that as an organization and go from there."
But right tackle Willie Anderson said he'd be sorry if Pickens doesn't come back. Anderson saw him a comedian who kept a losing team upbeat the past few seasons.
"From a football standpoint," Anderson said, "we just lost our all-time receiver. He was our Jerry Rice."
You won't get that take from the Bengals' coaches, still angry he showed up out of shape after his holdout last training camp and then had his poorest full season since the David Klingler era with 57 catches for 737 yards. Teammates like defensive captain Takeo Spikes don't see him as a disruptive force in the locker room, but they also see benefits of the move.
"For guys who don't want to be here, they don't need to be here," Spikes said. "It's a good move. The organization and Carl met each other half way. (But) Carl never did stir up big emotion in the locker room. He never did go around in a rage and make a big thing out of anything in the locker room.'
Lippincott admitted Pickens' days "seem to be numbered," and that the Bengals think they're better without him "We probably wouldn't have done what we did" but he also knows he was talking about one of the greatest players in Bengals' history.
"You have to give him is due," Lippincott said. "He's a hell of a player who had a lot of big games for us. It's tough to replace his competitiveness for the ball, but athletically we've probably done a little more."