Take your damn ball and go

Updated: November 19, 2003, 8:47 PM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

Here was Keyshawn playing the part of the confused, confounded victim on Tuesday afternoon, blind-sided over the emboldened Buccaneers telling him to stay far, far away for the rest of the season, telling him that Tampa believes it has a better chance of winning with him out of the locker room than it did with him on the football field.

Jon Gruden
Keyshawn Johnson and Jon Gruden didn't see eye-to-eye.
For the first time in his life, Keyshawn Johnson was delivered this unmistakable message: His talent wasn't worth the turmoil. He isn't a franchise football player. He rages against this idea, but the myth that his talent can hold hostage an NFL team has been officially obliterated. If Bill Parcells didn't confirm this upon trading him three years ago, Jon Gruden just did by deactivating him for the season on Tuesday.

Oh, right. Parcells didn't trade him. Al Groh did. Whatever, Keyshawn. Whatever. Nevertheless, this had to be the most sobering moment of his football life. Three years ago, they overpaid him a $56 million contract and a $13 million signing bonus. Now, the Bucs just told him: Take the damn ball and get out.

Perhaps Gruden wouldn't have made this move with the defending Super Bowl champions at 6-4, but they're 4-6, the season slipping away and Keyshawn had been relentless in his intentions of playing elsewhere next season. Management called him a "distraction." Now, Gruden flexed his muscles with a proclamation that no one is safe there, no one beyond consequences.

Eventually, it can't always be about Keyshawn. His way of making it so exhausts everyone. When they're winning, maybe teams can live with it. Not losing, though. If Johnson insisted on leaving at season's end -- and he did, saying he would rather retire than play another year under Gruden -- then the Bucs made a wise move tossing him now.

Let's be fair here: Keyshawn Johnson is a model football player on many levels, a throwback warrior on Sunday afternoons who too often is mistaken for a primadonna reluctant to get his uniform dirty. He doesn't take plays off. He blocks with the tenacity of a fullback. He runs routes over the middle, willing to take his hits and hold onto the ball. Part of what makes him a pain in the ass off the field, makes him relentless on it.

As much as anything, his insecurity can be so self-destructive, turning that big, strong and smart athlete into something small and sad. When ABC wired him for Monday Night Football against the Colts this season, Johnson relentlessly belittled star receiver Marvin Harrison, exposing a deep-seeded pettiness and jealousy that he should be so far above.

The thing is, Keyshawn can't help himself. It's almost as if no one else can be included in the conversation as a great receiver, which is ultimately ironic considering that Keyshawn Johnson himself doesn't belong in the discussion.

Even Super Bowl week in San Diego, Johnson was still trashing the Jets for trading him, especially the players the Jets used on the picks for him. Looking back, there isn't an intelligent executive in professional football who wouldn't have done just a fragment of that trade straight-up -- the chance to draft quarterback Chad Pennington for Keyshawn Johnson.

Nevertheless, the sarcasm dripped: "It was a great trade for the Jets," Johnson said. "They got what they wanted. I got what I wanted out of the deal. They got a defensive pass rusher that's excellent, a tight end that's a Hall of Famer, and they got a quarterback that's the next greatest thing going. And they got another defensive end that's a great pass rusher...

"Oh no, wait ... Shockey's on the Giants."

"The New York Jets approached it as 'We want to be a Super Bowl team five-six years from now.' I don't want to wait five-six years, because it may never happen. I wanted to get it now. For them, I guess they got the better trade. They spent less money, didn't get a selfish player, and I'm in the Super Bowl."

Exactly. Keyshawn made it to the Super Bowl. And he won it. Still, he can't let go. He can never let go. Even now, he still believes Parcells never would've traded him with the Jets. It had to be new Jets coach, Al Groh. In Johnson's mind, Groh feared the power of his persona in the locker room. The Jets were reluctant to meet his asking price for a renegotiated contract and feared a holdout to start the 2000 season. In the end, Parcells found Tampa Bay willing to part with two first-round draft picks, and with Groh, traded him.

At the Super Bowl, Johnson told a small cluster of New York reporters that Parcells later informed him, "If I was the head coach, there was no way in hell I would've done it."

Whatever the story, it was smart business for Parcells to keep Keyshawn on his side. Who knows? Maybe he would coach again someday, and maybe they would be together again. It almost happened in Tampa Bay, but Parcells backed out of an agreement, waited a year and eventually made his way to Dallas.

Never disguising his desire to play for Parcells again, you have to wonder the odds with the three talented receivers on the Cowboys now. Maybe Johnson had his doubts too, when he told Shelley Smith of ESPN on Tuesday, "Tell everyone I'm in New York looking for apartments."

He never wanted to leave New York. Rest assured, he'll try hard to get there now.

The Giants?

They won't touch him.

The Jets?

Why would they bring Keyshawn Johnson back to replace Keyshawn Johnson, when there's a good chance they can get Terrell Owens to replace him?

Three years ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers paid Johnson to be a franchise player. They misjudged him. Finally, they came to a conclusion closer to market value: His talent isn't worth his trouble.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.

ALSO SEE