BY GEOFF HOBSON
One of the most volatile and enigmatic chapters in Bengals' history closed today with the release of Carl Pickens, their all-time receiver who broke records, spurned media, ripped coaches, mystified teammates and spawned his very own contract clause.
With the club preparing to greet the unhappy Pickens for Friday's start of training camp, NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw apparently approached the NFL Wednesday morning about resolving the Pickens issue separate from the sides' ongoing negotiations over a variety of issues.
Pickens' agent did not agree to sign a waiver that would prevent his client from suing the Bengals. But the club signed off on the deal anyway and cut Pickens late this afternoon. Bengals officials don't believe Pickens will file a grievance and his agent told them he has no plans.
The NFLPA and NFL agreed to settle its grievance over the Bengals' franchise player designation by allowing the club to use a transition tag on one of their free agents next season. The Bengals will then get back their franchise tag after the 2001 season.
A transition tag is a one-year offer that's the average of the top 10 players at his position, which allows the Bengals to match any offer in free agency. But unlike the franchise tag, the Bengals don't have exclusive rights to the player and if they choose not to match, they get no compensation.
The Bengals believed the NFL had a deal with the NFLPA three months ago that would allow them to keep the franchise tag in exchange for releasing Pickens as part of a global settlement. They weren't told the talks snagged until late last week.
"I'm not happy about losing the franchise tag," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "We did nothing wrong to lose it. But it's time to get past this thing and move on to the season."
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The move frees up $3 million under the salary cap as the club continues to try and hammer out a long-term deal with Pro Bowl running back Dillon.
Pickens' exit has been expected since he held what amounted to a locker-room press conference during the last week of the season in which he criticized Brown's decision to bring back coach Bruce Coslet for another year. Pickens offered to buy out the last year of Coslet's deal even though the coach had been one of his most vocal supporters in the organization.
The lingering bitterness from that day has been obvious. Coslet offered a terse, "no comment" on the move.
"Carl brought this to a head," Brown said. "He's the one who wanted to move on and I think the way things have happened, that's best for everyone. But it will take away nothing from what he did as a Bengal. He set records, was an outstanding player and great competitor while on the field. I think he has a lot of time left wherever he goes. I think he'll play effectively and we wish him well."
Brown puts Pickens, "in the first class of receivers we've had there. With Isaac Curtis, Cris Collinsworth, Chip Myers, Eddie Brown. That group."
Pickens, 30, a lanky but strong 6-2, 205 pounds in his prime, holds franchise records with 530 catches and 93 straight games with at least one catch. He made his mark as a jump-ball artist devastating in goal-line situations. Pickens caught 29 touchdowns in 1995-96, and just this past season beat the Browns on the Bengals' last play in an 18-17 victory when he made a leaping catch off a two-yard loft from quarterback Akili Smith.
He also rang up last-minute touchdown catches that either won games or forced overtime from Boomer Esiason (against Chicago in 1992), Jeff Blake (against Jacksonville in 1995 and Arizona in 1997) and Neil O'Donnell (against Pittsburgh in 1998).
But club insiders thought he played last season with too much weight after missing training camp because of a holdout. After signing a five-year, $22.3 million deal the day before the opener, Pickens had his worst full season since the David Klingler era with 57 catches for six touchdowns.
Most were surprised when Pickens agreed to the long-term deal because he left so bitterly following the 1998 season. Pickens expected to leave as a free agent and ran into the locker room after the season-ending 35-0 loss to Tampa Bay singing, "This is it." When Pickens was ripped by people inside and outside the locker room for not giving a full effort against the Buccaneers, Coslet defended him.
"We didn't expect it to unravel like it did," Brown said of giving Pickens $8 million in salary and bonus for '99. "But it did and now it's best to go our separate ways."
Among his teammates, Pickens was engaging, funny, often inviting groups to his home, when he would play musical instruments he taught himself to play. He could break up a room with his dead-on impersonations. But around reporters, he was openly hostile and rarely granted interviews. He never lived down the description, "locker room cancer," hung on him by some former Bengals during a post-game media show.
"We've got some young receivers coming in here and Carl's attitude isn't going to help them," defensive end John Copeland said recently. "Not the way he feels about the team now. It's good for everyone involved."
The Bengals feel they've got two solid -- albeit young -- replacements at split end opposite flanker Darnay Scott in Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans.
"We drafted to replace Carl," said Brown of the club's first- and third-round picks from Florida State. "They're young, but they will play and get better the more they play."
Warrick signed last month, but Dugans is holding off because of "The Carl Pickens Clause." That's the loyalty language the Bengals transferred from the collective bargaining agreement into the signing bonus in a bid to prevent a Pickens-like public tirade that forces teams to release players.
The most interested team in Pickens figures to be Seattle, but Bengals' division rivals Baltimore and Tennessee could also get into the mix.