Pickens returns

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Carl Pickens can't sell his house in Cincinnati. He's also trying to sell the notion that he's a misunderstood guy who just wants to win.

Which he's doing quite nicely, thank you, in Tenneessee, where his 3-1 Titans are getting ready to visit Cincinnati Sunday. It's Pickens' first trip back in the uniform of a different stripe since the ugliest divorce this side of a Rick Rockwell encounter.

It's also the first time Pickens has been on a 3-1 team in his nine NFL seasons. There's no hint of the "locker room cancer," tag hung on him here, with Titans coach Jeff Fisher extolling his weight room work ethic.

"He'll be on 'Muscle Magazine,' in another couple of weeks," Fisher said.

When Fisher agreed to sign Pickens early in training camp, he bought the former Pro Bowler's defense that his bad-guy image in Cincinnati was merely a product of his frustration with losing.

Pickens rarely talked to the media when he was here, but agreed to a conference call from Nashville Wednesday.

"I think if you really got a chance to know me, you would see what's written and said is completely different than what you may see," Pickens said. "(My image) has never been an issue or a concern here. I think the people here knew the situation I was in. Athletes and owners and coaches, they understand that. People on the outside don't understand that. They don't see that. I never had a problem with it. That's not who I was. That's why it didn't concern me."

Pickens concerned the Bengals after he blew up his five-year, $23.2 million contract last December, three months after he took a $3.5 million signing bonus. During the season's final week, Pickens blistered Bengals management for not canning coach Bruce Coslet because of his 7-24 rec ord the last two seasons. So the Bengals crafted "The Carl Pickens Clause," and attached it to the signing bonus in an effort to prevent players from forcing the team to cut them with inflammatory public comments.

Then they released Pickens on the first day of training camp, ending the enigmatic Bengals career of the club's all-time reception leader.

But ripping one coach can be another coach's veteran pickup.

"I don't know the details of what went on up there," Fisher said. "I can understand and appreciate the level of frustration not only on his behalf, but on behalf of his teammates , his coaches and management. It's hard when you're not winning games. It's very easy over a period of time to simply say, 'All I want to do is win.'

"According to Carl, that's basically about what he said," Fisher said. "You can't blame him for that. I can tell you this. He's been positive in our locker room. He's doing everything we've asked him to do, he's having fun, he's having fun on the practice field, he's working hard and making some plays for us."

Pickens, who has seven catches in four games, is day-to-day with a tender hamstring. He didn't practice Wednesday, but everyone in Bengaland expects Pickens to play even if he's in traction.

No one with the Bengals still quite knows what to make of Pickens. Many players loved the way he spoke his mind and didn't hide his frustration with losing. Others thougth he cared only about himself and stirred bad locker room chemistry. Others just want to move on.

"I like No. 81," said Bengals quarterback Akili Smith of rookie receiver Ron Dugans, who is wearing Pickens' old number. "I can grow with No. 81. Pick was getting old."

What is known is that in the last few seasons, Pickens virtually had no relationship with Coslet or offensive coordinator Ken Anderson. Coslet got his shot in against Pickens last week on bengals.com, citing his "immaturity," and Pickens got in a little dig Wednesday when asked if Coslet's resignation last week was a surprise.

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"Not really. It's something I wasn't looking for and anticipating. Things like that happen and you deal with it and you move on," Pickens said. "They seem to be playing better than they had the first three weeks. I know coach (Dick) LeBeau pretty good. I know he's a motivator. These guys will step up and play for him."

"The Pickens' Clause," which held up the contract for Dugans and was the final obstacle in running back Corey Dillon's one-year, $3 million deal, is currently being reviewed by an arbitrator because of an NFL Players Association grievance. Pickens had no reaction.

"It doesn't make me feel one way or the other," Pickens said of his clause. " That's a business decision, a management move. What can you do? I can't argue with that, so why should I?"

Bengals President Mike Brown, like Pickens, called a truce Wednesday.

"He was a great competitor on the field and proved that he's a fine player," Brown said. "Off the field towards the end of his stay here, it got difficult for both sides and sometimes that happens. You can go around the league and see similar caes to this, like (Tampa Bay receiver) Keyshawn Johnson in New York."

Pickens didn't blast, either. In fact, he was almost complimentary. He did say it was a different atmosphere with the Titans and that he was enjoying it, but he wouldn't elaborate.

"You play this game for one reason and only one and that's to be the best and to win," Pickens said. "After awhile, when you don't, it starts to take a toll on you. You want something more. You want to go to a place or team you think you can do all the things you want to do.

"It didn't work out in Cincinnati," Pickens said. "I think things are going to change there with the new stadium and possibly the new coaching change and all the new players they have. I think they're moving in the right direction . Right now, I think it's going to be a matter of time."

Pickens, 30, doesn't have much time. The Bengals thought he had lost a step, dangerous for a player who was never a burner, and they opted to take Florida State wide receiver Peter Warrick in the draft.

But there are those Pickens left behind in the Bengals locker room who swear by him. As one said, "There's no chemistry when you're 3-13."

"All I know," said tight end Tony McGee, "is that he played hard every time he went on the field and that's what we'll get Sunday."

Others disagree and heaved a sigh of relief when the Bengals told him not to report to the spring minicamp. His hazing of rookies and difficult relationship with coaches were legendary.

But there are also guys like cornerback Artrell Hawkins.

"I love Carl Pickens, to be honest," Hawkins said. "I appreciate him being himself despite what everyone says about him. He's said some bad things about the organization, but I won't get in the middle of that because that has nothing to do with me. I like Carl on a personal level. Carl has told me some things. He's explained to me why he is the way he is. I just respect him because he's his own person."

On Wednesday, Pickens was a different person. He said he looked forward to the trip and meeting up with injured receiver Darnay Scott Saturday night. He even said, "Not everything was bad in Cincinnati, not as bad as it seemed or it may have come across at times."

But bad enough that the Bengals' all-time leading receiver probably gets booed Sunday.

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