The Tampa Bay Buccaneers essentially cut ties with disgruntled receiver Keyshawn Johnson on Tuesday, keeping him on their roster for now but announcing they plan to deactivate him for the rest of the season.
It was a startling development for a 4-6 team in peril of missing the playoffs one season after winning the Super Bowl.
Johnson, who has four seasons remaining on an eight-year, $56-million contract that included a $13-million signing bonus, first made it clear to team officials “four or five weeks ago” that he didn’t want to be back with Tampa Bay next season, Buccaneer General Manager Rich McKay said Tuesday at a news conference.
“That’s not the first player to say, “Hey, let’s end it,’ ” McKay said. “It’s the actions that follow it and the disruption created that precipitated where we are today. No team goes into this wanting to do this. This isn’t a win for a team.... We went through this many times, and we felt that this was something we needed to do.”
Johnson, the former USC standout and No. 1 overall pick whose 1997 book, “Just Give Me the Damn Ball!” only reinforced his reputation for being selfish, frequently clashed with Buccaneer Coach Jon Gruden over his role in the offense. Johnson had established a pattern of missing mandatory workouts and football-related team functions, McKay said.
If they were to release Johnson now, the Buccaneers would still owe him the remainder of his salary for this season and would take a salary-cap hit of $6.5 million, or half of his signing bonus. So they will keep him through the end of the season and probably will try to trade him, although his high cap number will make that difficult.
The Buccaneers don’t have space under the salary cap to do what the Cleveland Browns did last week when they released their most productive receiver, Kevin Johnson, who they felt didn’t react well when he was demoted and was a distraction in the locker room. A day after being released, he was signed by Jacksonville.
Gruden, speaking to reporters in Tampa, declined to elaborate on the reasons the Buccaneers considered the Keyshawn Johnson situation a growing distraction.
“I’ll just say that, for whatever reason, he did not want to be here,” Gruden said. “He let me know that after one of our early games. We’ve worked hard to try to get him the football, obviously, and win games.
“We want our players to be happy, but unfortunately it has festered for awhile. I believe it has affected him. Certainly, we hate to see him go, but again that’s just part of football sometimes.”
Jerome Stanley, Johnson’s Los Angeles-based agent, said he was “very surprised” when McKay informed him of the decision this week. Johnson was told it will not be necessary for him to be at the team’s facility for the rest of the year.
“He is their top offensive player and one of the top receivers in the NFL, who’s in his prime with no substance or criminal issues,” Stanley said. “He hasn’t missed a game with an injury since his rookie year.”
Johnson’s numbers don’t reflect that value. He’s ranked third on the team -- and tied for 24th in the league -- with 45 catches for 600 yards. He raised eyebrows around the league earlier this season when, while wearing a microphone for ABC during a “Monday Night Football” broadcast, he scoffed at the number of short receptions by Indianapolis receiver Marvin Harrison. The remarks rang especially hollow in light of Harrison’s final numbers: 11 catches for 176 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-35 overtime victory.
Less than two years ago, when it appeared the Buccaneers were on the verge of hiring Bill Parcells, Johnson, who played under him with the New York Jets, was heavily in favor of the move. Team insiders say Johnson was disappointed when the team hired Gruden, and never got over that.
“I was never Gruden’s guy,” Johnson told ESPN on Tuesday. “He never liked me. I told him I’d rather retire than play for him in 2004. But I also told him I wouldn’t be a distraction, I wouldn’t go to the media with it, and I didn’t. I don’t know why they [deactivated] me. I was playing hard; I wasn’t dogging it.”
In the past, Johnson made it clear he would love to play for Parcells, now coach of the Dallas Cowboys, and has said he has always envisioned playing for the Raiders. The Oakland possibility is especially intriguing, not only because of the team’s reputation as the NFL’s last-chance saloon, but because the Raiders’ two starting receivers, Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, are nearing the end of their careers.
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Tampa Bay will deactivate wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson with six games left. A look at his 2003 statistics:
*--* G Rec Yds Avg Lg TD FD 20+ 40+ 10 45 600 13.3 39 3 33 9 0