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Sam Farmer ON THE NFL

These Free Agents Need Maintenance

March 03, 2004|Sam Farmer

The NFL free-agency period begins today with a question that stretches from Tampa tirades to Niner whines:

Which teams will put money where The Mouths are?

Among the players who could be throwing tantrums on new teams next season, by way of free agency or trades, are Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson, Oakland's Rich Gannon, Cincinnati's Corey Dillon and San Francisco's Terrell Owens. Some of those players made headlines last season for tearing into teammates -- many of whom deserved it -- and getting into snits on the sideline. Others showed up late for meetings and practices.

All are high-maintenance. All are talented. But is that talent worth the trouble -- especially when the price tag is seven or eight figures?

History has shown us that there are teams willing to take the risk.

"It's similar to the concept of a rock star," agent Leigh Steinberg said. "There are certain talent levels that are so spectacular, so unbelievable, so blindingly brilliant, that coaches are willing to work overtime to conform a player's behavior. They'll try to harness the brilliance of that talent into their system, and try to pound the square peg into the round hole."

We'll find out soon what the market is for Sapp, the rotund Buccaneer defensive tackle who has a way of chaffing everyone from Paul Tagliabue on down. Is there any team willing to offer him a blockbuster deal, one he no doubt feels he deserves, or will he settle for a cut-rate contract to stay in the place where he spent the last nine seasons?

As for Johnson, will the Buccaneers send him to Dallas in exchange for receiver Joey Galloway? It's clear that Johnson is on his way out of Tampa. He was deactivated for the last part of the 2003 season after running afoul of Coach Jon Gruden one too many times.

It appears as if the Raiders have found enough salary-cap space to keep Gannon, their two-time NFL most-valuable-player quarterback, even after he made some blistering comments about his teammates after last season. He has a base salary of $7 million for the 2004 season, not to mention a surgically repaired shoulder that ended his 2003 season at the midway point. If they Raiders don't want him, he could wind up playing for his former coach, Gruden, in Tampa.

Across the San Francisco Bay, the 49ers released quarterback Jeff Garcia on Tuesday, handing over the team to his longtime understudy, Tim Rattay. Garcia, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, had been the team's starter since 1999 and holds the franchise's season record for passing yardage.

Garcia's release was somewhat expected. What wasn't anticipated was the glaring paperwork error involving star receiver Owens, who failed to inform the team by the deadline of his intention to become a free agent. The 49ers on Tuesday gave Owens permission to seek a trade and said they would do the same. It's almost certain that Owens will be playing for another team next season.

Dillon and quarterback Jon Kitna remain under contract with Cincinnati, but the Bengals might try to trade them because of the emergence of running back Rudi Johnson and Carson Palmer, now slated to be the starting quarterback next season. Productive as he has been when healthy, Dillon is also a headache. He told reporters in October that he felt unappreciated and wanted to leave Cincinnati after the season.

Before the next game, several Bengal fans wore Dillon jerseys with tape covering his name over No. 28. One fan covered Dillon's name with tape and wrote "CRYBABY" over it.

Dillon's talent is undeniable. He's one of only four players in NFL history to run for 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons. Last season, his seventh, he was slowed by a hyper-extended knee and strained groin, and supplanted as the featured back by Johnson.

It appears Dillon, like many household-name players, vastly overestimated his value in the eyes of other teams.

Is it any wonder the New England Patriots have steered clear of ballyhooed star players? They have won two of the last three Super Bowls by assembling a roster of lesser-known, workmanlike players who fit into Coach Bill Belichick's system, then letting the coaching staff squeeze career performances out of them. In short, their blueprint isn't all about throwing around the green.

"You can't copy their intelligence; they're awful smart," Ernie Accorsi, general manager of the New York Giants, said of the Patriots. "You don't know if you're as smart as they are. But ... they have players who obviously know how to play. They are older players they've plugged in. Just clutch, competitive players they've added. Very few big names. They've made tremendous talent judgments and they've coached the heck out of them."

How long the Patriots can keep that up is unclear. Ty Law, their best cornerback, is starting to grouse about his contract.

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On the Market

Some of the better known players who will be available when free agency opens today and where they might land:

*--* Pos Player 2003 Team Likely destination(s) QB Marc Bulger Rams Rams QB Jeff Garcia 49ers Raiders, Buccaneers, Bears, Cowboys RB Charlie Garner Raiders Broncos, Buccaneers, Patriots, Cowboys DE Jevon Kearse Titans Titans, Redskins DT Warren Sapp Buccaneers Buccaneers, Falcons, Colts RB Duce Staley Eagles Cowboys, Broncos, Patriots QB Kordell Stewart Bears Buccaneers, Saints T Matt Stinchcomb Raiders Buccaneers, Falcons, Saints DE Marcellus Wiley Chargers Redskins, Raiders, Cowboys DE Grant Wistrom Rams Rams, Chiefs

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