BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals said today they are in no hurry to resolve the status of their franchise player tag and are preparing to welcome unhappy training camper Carl Pickens to Georgetown College. But the club's all-time leading receiver is destined to back up No. 1 draft pick Peter Warrick in what club president Mike Brown calls the toughest camp competition Pickens has ever had in his eight turbulent seasons here.
"Darnay (Scott) and Warrick," said coach Bruce Coslet, when asked his starting wideouts at Friday night's first practice. "(Pickens) didn't play very well last year, but if he comes in he's got to be the third guy. I don't see (Craig) Yeast beating him out. But there's a lot of variables. He's going to have plenty of competition and that's the way it should be."
The Bengals held out the olive branch to Pickens today at their annual preseason media day at the Queen City Club. Brown said he hopes Pickens looks forward instead of backward. Coslet pledged to treat Pickens professionally despite the player's verbal assault on the Bengals at the end of last season for retaining Coslet.
And Coslet hoped Pickens remembers, "I put my butt on the line and recommended to Mike Brown that we extend that contract we offered (last year). Me. He got $8 million in the bank I know I was responsible for. He was a 30-catch-a-year guy when I got here and in my offense he was a 100-catch-a-year guy."
Hadley Engelhard, Pickens' agent, said today "only time will tell," if his client is ready to let bygones be bygones. Engelhard also said he plans to talk with Pickens again to decide if he'll report or take a $5,000 daily hit, the fine for a player under contract who misses training camp.
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Engelhard also urged Brown to take a deposition in the NFL Players Association grievance against the Bengals over the use of their franchise tag so the case could get settled in arbitration, "in two weeks or maybe sooner," so Cincinnati could then release Pickens. But Brown said no one from the NFL or the NFLPA has told him to take a deposition and that he doesn't need to know the status of the franchise tag until February.
"It's hard to stand up here and put Carl down," Brown told the media. "I wished he hadn't said what he said last year. Or some of the things that he's said over the years. But I'm not going to question his ability to play. He's proven that beyond a doubt."
There's no question that Pickens' burning desire to win is at the root of his quest to leave Cincinnati.
Whether he can play on this team with this group of receivers is in doubt. The Bengals felt Pickens reported out of shape after last season's holdout that ended three days before the season and never recovered. He caught 57 passes, his lowest total in six years for a season in which he played at least 13 games, and they are grooming third-round pick Ron Dugans to take over his spot at split end.
Plus, there's the chemistry question. Colset said he doesn't think his other players will let Pickens affect them and if it does, "I'l deal with it. I don't have time for it to be a problem because I've got 79 other guys . . . maybe I'm not going to go over his house for dinner, but I plan to have a professional and business relationship with him because that's what I am. A professional football coach and I'll coach him."
Pickens' frustration with losing is at the root of his quest to leave Cincinnati. It's a crusade he began politely late in the 1998 season when he said he wanted to move on as a free agent. But the ugliness escalated when the Bengals put the franchise tag on him and even their five-year, $23.2 million contract couldn't prevent him from spewing during the last week of a 4-12 season.
Brown doubts if Pickens reports that he'll cause a disturbance. If they decided he did, he could be fined for conduct detrimental to the team and possibly lose $2.8 million of last year's $3.5 million signing bonus.
"If he's a problem when we get there, we'll have to face up to it," Brown said. "What's he going to do, cause a scene? I don't think so. I think he'll practice hard and play hard. There'll be a certain amount of discomfort about it on his side and our side both, but I don't think that's insurmountable."
What looks to be insurmountable is getting an answer on what exactly happened to a deal the NFL thought it had with the NFLPA that included the Bengals getting their franchise tag restored if they cut Pickens.
But Engelhard said he was told by the NFLPA that the Pickens case was not and never will be part of such a deal and that it's a separate issue destined for arbitration. Yet Brown said both sides postponed depositions during the spring for himself and Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, "because there was no reason to go forward with it if we already had the settlement. And the other reason is that none of this matters until (free agency starts in February).
"We had a settlement," Brown said. "I don't know that it's fair bargaining to make a deal and then crab walk on it and then ask the other party to take something less."