BY GEOFF HOBSON
Three months ago, Carl Pickens didn't have a locker. Now four days before the Bengals report to training camp, the disgruntled wide receiver has a locker reserved at Georgetown College when the club gathers in Kentucky. But whether he uses it or not is another question.
Pickens' agent said today his client hasn't decided if he'll report or take the daily $5,000 fine for sitting out, and wondered if the standoff has become personal. At the close of business today, the Bengals had no inclination to let Pickens go and expected him to be at Friday's 1 p.m. team meeting.
If Pickens is stunned by these turn of events, what about the Bengals? They were informed late last week by the NFL that there is no global agreement between management council and the NFL Players Association in which one of the minor settlements was Cincinnati retaining its francise player designation in return for waiving Pickens.
"I was told for the first time late last week that I shouldn't count on it and before then I had always been told (a deal) was just days away," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "We were going to release him if there was a quid pro quo. We were told there would be. Later, we were told there wouldn't be after all. So we're right back to where we started and we expect him to fulfill his obligation and show up."
Pickens, the club's all-time leading receiver looking to end a turbulent eight years here, is six months removed from what amounted to a locker room press conference in which he lambasted management for keeping head coach Bruce Coslet another season. Hadley Engelhard, Pickens' agent, acknowledged today his client has a rocky relationship with Coslet. Coslet had no comment and Brown is, "waiting to see."
"Do we have concerns about how it will go? We do," Brown said. "But that doesn't necessarily determine how it will come out. We'll have to see. I'm not going to pre-judge it."
The case revolves around an NFLPA grievance against three NFL teams for the way they signed their franchise players to long-term deals before last season. The Bengals could lose the tag for five seasons if they lose in arbitration. But Steve Zucker, Pickens' former agent,
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backed up the Bengals' claim today when he said he didn't finalize the five-year, $23.2 million deal with the club until Sept. 11, two days after Pickens signed a one-year contract.
Engelhard said the standoff "has become personal," and warned the situation could have an impact on the locker room. Brown said the club has no vendetta against Pickens.
"We paid him eight million bucks last year," Brown said, "and a lot of it we paid him for wasn't for just last year, but playing out into the future."
Engelhard said the Bengals, "have nothing to gain to have Carl Pickens there," and said he has spoken to some of Pickens' teammates.
"It's going to have an affect on people, the way this is happening," Engelhard said. "First, it won't benefit the team. Secondly, people have to remember they are players first and Bengals second. When players see this happening to one of their own, they notice. If there was even a chance Carl would be on this team, why wouldn't they have invited him to (minicamp)?"
Brown argues that on the eve of April's minicamp, management council told him it was on the verge of a settlement with the union on a mass of issues that included the franchise tag grievance, so Pickens was excused.
"He's contracted to be here. He's the one who wants to be released. We want him to fulfill his obligation," Brown said. "I think management council was told a settlement had been reached, and then suddenly it all slipped away. Why, I don't know. The overall settlement had been discussed and our people thought negotiations had been completed."
One factor that may force Pickens to show is the Bengals' ability to come after $2.8 million of last year's $3.5 million signing bonus if he doesn't report. But will he make the team? All indications are that No. 1 draft pick Peter Warrick will start ahead of Pickens at the split end spot and third-round pick Ron Dugans is supposed to be a younger version of Pickens as a big, possession receiver who can jump.
"We're going to see how things pan out," Brown said.