Coaches don't hesitate to discipline players

Teams have been quick to discipline players this season and in most cases it's the coaches making the call.

Updated: November 28, 2003, 6:10 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Daryl Gardener apparently hasn't read the news this season.

In the Season of Discipline, Gardener picked the worst possible time to get into a public spat with Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. In a season in which David Boston, Grady Jackson, Chris McAlister, Keyshawn Johnson, Kevin Johnson and others lost either their jobs, money or playing time because of varied form of conduct, Gardener goes on the radio after a one-game suspension and calls Shanahan "that little man upstairs."

Keyshawn Johnson
Keyshawn Johnson was sent packing by Jon Gruden and the Bucs.
Little man upstairs? Coaches come in all shapes and sizes, but they have one thing in common. They are in control, and individual challenges can be countered by quick suspensions even if it's unfair or ill-advised. Ultimately, coaches rely on players to keep their jobs, but, in a team sport like football, the individual player can be sacrificed. Masters and commanders in the old days at sea had the gangplank. NFL coaches have suspensions and the waiver wire.

That's the amazing part about the Gardener situation. The Broncos pulled him away from the Redskins with a seven-year, $34.2 million contract. He was going to be the anchor along Shanahan's defensive line. Unfortunately, Gardener's ship never sailed. He busted up a wrist before training camp in a fight in the parking lot of an IHOP.

When he returned to the field in Week 6, Gardener struggled. The wrist hurt. His hustle was spotty. As he has done before, Shanahan allowed his assistants to show tape to the team of Gardener's lack of hustle. Like most coaches, Shanahan can motivate positively or negatively. Gardener, not fully knowing the Broncos head coach, blew up at being embarrassed in front of the team.

His anger drew a one-game suspension. But it didn't end there. By going on radio and blasting Shanahan, Gardener earned himself two more games to the suspension, and now Shanahan and the Broncos organization will be angling to get back some of his $5 million signing bonus.

In extreme cases, the NFL Players Association gets involved, and this is obviously an extreme case. Remember two years ago when Bill Belichick wanted to suspend Terry Glenn for the season. The NFLPA took the case to arbitration and reduced the suspension to four games, setting up guidelines.

Regardless, the discipline stories of this year will carry long-term effects into the future and set the stage for an upsurge in power for the coaches. Expect more fines and less tolerance.

One thing that is apparent is that players working for coaches without general managers should be prepared for harsher discipline. In an organizational structure in which the coach and general manager work hand-in-hand, there are less reactionary suspensions. General managers have to worry about salary cap and personnel ramifications for the long-term and can be a little less emotional than a coach who doesn't have time for distractions.

The result of a coach-general manager suspension is a little more thought out. Take the Chris McAllister one-game suspension. Because of weather problems, the Ravens flew to San Diego in the middle of the week to prepare for a game against the Chargers. Coach Brian Billick warned his players to closely follow rules involving curfews and meetings.

McAllister was tardy too many times in the first day and night, and when he showed up just before a bus for practice was ready to leave Friday, Billick ordered him to fly home. General manager Ozzie Newsome made it clear to Billick that the suspension was for one game. The Ravens won. McAllister accepted his penalty and has been a model citizen and has had a great season since.

There are more examples of coaches taking extreme measures. Kevin Johnson is just one example. Tardiness or conduct wasn't the problem here. The issue was blocking. Butch Davis, who has full control of the Browns organization, didn't like his downfield blocking, so he cut Johnson even though he was his No. 1 pass-catcher.

Being so rash could ultimately hurt the franchise. It took Johnson about a week and a half in Jacksonville to move into the first team. Sixteen teams put in waiver claims on Johnson. Maybe we won't know until the end of the season, but the Browns receiving corps may have suffered by his early departure. Had a general manager worked with Davis, he would have found a way to calm the situation and salvage the talent.

In New Orleans, Jim Haslett grew tired of Jackson, who battled the coach over the offseason about being part of the conditioning program. Jackson is a great talent even though he is overweight. The Packers claimed him after being cut, and immediately, Jackson gave the Packers better push in the interior of their defensive line.

The Keyshawn Johnson story may be the ultimate in a coach getting his way. Jon Gruden grew tired of Johnson complaining about not getting catches. He was insulted Johnson wanted out of Tampa Bay after the season. But hey, both sides lived and thrived with their difference last year and earned Super Bowl rings.

Gruden came to general manager Rich McKay and wanted Johnson out of his way. McKay explained the salary cap impossibilities of releasing him. They would have to absorb a $7.2 million cap hit. Cutting him wasn't an option and because Gruden hadn't fined Johnson for past indiscretions, he couldn't suspend Johnson for the rest of the season.

The two sides came up with the idea of deactivating him for the rest of the season. But it is a risky move. What if Joe Jurevicius or Keenan McCardell aggravate leg injuries? Johnson will be relaxing in Southern California while the Bucs will be searching for another receiver.

Though McKay is too loyal to the organization to say if he didn't agree with Gruden, my guess is he might have handled it differently. He might have fined Johnson for missing a team flight and a team meeting and promised to make the next instance a more severe penalty.

The one thing 2003 has shown is that the NFL is growing less tolerant toward player conduct. Players may control the future of coaches, but coaches control their day-to-day existence.

What could end up being bad news for players is that big-ticket free agents may get more language in their contracts in case of problems. The Chargers suspended David Boston for a game and showed immediate regret for signing him earlier this season. Terrell Owens, Keyshawn Johnson and others may find a tougher market this offseason because of the discipline issue.

"There is no question that when you sign a guy for $5 million, and all of a sudden the guy doesn't play, then it's not a good decision," Shanahan told reporters about the Gardener situation. "I knew there were some issues and I thought that I could deal with those issues. Every time I had a problem with Daryl Gardener, I sat down and told him why I was upset. That had nothing to do with football, which is just the standard way that we operate. The thing that I was disappointed with is the level of play, in practice and games, that I had not seen in the past. So ultimately, when someone doesn't perform, it's a bad decision."

In 2003, coaches are trying to fix their bad decisions at the expense of the player.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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