Johnson's time in Tampa appears over

Updated: November 20, 2003, 4:30 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers shelved their disgruntled star receiver, Keyshawn Johnson, for the rest of the year Tuesday, saying he had become disruptive during a disappointing 4-6 start for the defending Super Bowl champions.

The Bucs said they would deactivate Johnson for the remaining six games. He will be paid his full salary and was not fined, general manager Rich McKay said.

Hoge on Keyshawn
Merril Hoge
Often times, it's during adversity that you find out what a person is truly made of. And, true to character, when something doesn't go right, Keyshawn Johnson has repeatedly been the first guy to beat his chest and say, "what about me?"

In the midst of a three-game skid, what the Bucs' players should be saying is, "what about the team?"

Jon Gruden has done a terrific job of making the most of his offensive talent. And the truth is that Johnson is, at best, a No. 2 wide receiver. He plays hard on every down and never quits, but Johnson certainly doesn't threaten anyone with his speed.

All of which, coupled with the Bucs' losing record, is likely the reasoning behind the decision to deactivate him for the rest of the season.

At 4-6, the Bucs have obviously not played up to expectations, so this move is also an attention-getter. It's Gruden putting his foot down and reminding everyone who's the boss, and that no one is above reproach.

Merril Hoge in an NFL analyst for ESPN.

"For whatever reason he didn't want to be here. He let me know that some time after one of our early games," coach Jon Gruden said.

ESPN's Sal Paolontonio has learned that the Bucs will not release Johnson at the end of this season and are prepared to pay him a $1 million roster bonus in order to control his rights to opening day of the 2004 season.

A senior member of the organization revealed the Bucs' plan to Paolontonio. The Bucs will owe Johnson the roster bonus on April 1, 2004.

By not releasing Johnson, the Bucs can ensure compensation -- either in a trade or via free agency -- when Johnson goes to another team. The source also said Johnson will be paid for the rest of the season, but is not allowed back at One Buc Place, the site of the Bucs' training facility.

Sources also have told ESPN that the actions McKay considered as a distraction to the team include: Johnson missing Monday's mandatory team meeting; Johnson missing curfew twice on the night before games; and Johnson missing the team plane coming back from the team's loss in San Francisco, without offering an explanation.

The move stunned Johnson, even though he made it clear to Gruden and McKay last month that wanted to leave after this season. The reason was Gruden, not McKay, the two-time Pro Bowl selection said.

Speaking earlier Tuesday with ESPN's Shelley Smith, Johnson emphasized his relationship problems with his coach, but expressed surprise at the Bucs' decision.

"Honestly, I'm very disappointed because I really wanted to win another championship with this team," he said. "I was never Gruden's guy. 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 released me. I was playing hard, I wasn't dogging it. Tell everyone I'm in New York looking for apartments."

Johnson played his first four seasons with the Jets after being selected with the first overall draft pick in 1996.

"It would be fun to return to New York, but it's a little prema­ture to say what will happen," Johnson told The Newark Star-Ledger on Tuesday night. "I don't know what the Jets' plans are. Obviously, I know the coach (Herman Edwards) pretty well and some front office people.

"We'll see when the time comes. I'm just really excited for my fu­ture. I have an interest in returning to a lot of places, but returning to the Jets would be something I'd take a strong look at it if were to come up. I want to go to a con­tender and help win another cham­pionship."

Johnson and Edwards developed a strong relationship during the one season they shared in Tampa Bay, and the two remain close, the Star-Ledger said.

Despite Johnson's admissions that his relationship with Gruden had long been a tense one, he was surprised by the Buccaneers decision to deactivate him.

"It a shock. I thought we would get through the year," Johnson said. "Why would you do that when you're trying to win another championship?

"You're talking about your best offensive player. And you're going to let him go? That's basically what they did. It doesn't make sense. ... But that's OK. I'll be fine. It didn't work out (with Gruden). It was a bad marriage. Now, I'll move on."

Johnson is the Bucs' third-leading receiver this season with 45 catches for 600 yards and three touchdowns.

McKay said he spoke with Johnson's agent, Jerome Stanley, and "we agreed that it will not be necessary for him to be present at our facility for the remainder of the year."

Johnson said he plans to spend the remainder of the season working as a network television analyst.

Johnson is midway through an eight-year, $56 million contract that included a $13 million signing bonus.

If the Bucs had decided to release him before the end of the season, they would have had an immediate extra $6.8 million worth of salary counted against this year's salary cap. Since they are currently only $310,000 under the cap, they would have had to trim approximately $6.5 million in salaries immediately to get under the cap -- either by releasing players or restructuring existing contracts.

Johnson has been unhappy with his role in Gruden's offense and felt the coach was determined to prove he could win without giving Johnson a heavy workload.

He had also been dropping not-so-subtle hints he did not wish to remain in Tampa Bay beyond 2003, including putting his Tampa home up for sale again last week.

"I went to them after the San Francisco game," Johnson said, referring to a 24-7 loss on Oct. 19. "The next day he tried to turn the team against me. He thought I was jealous of other guys getting the ball. All I wanted to do was help the team win."

Gruden said he was disappointed that his relationship with Johnson didn't work.

"We've worked hard to try to get him the football. ... We want our players to be happy. But unfortunately, it has festered for a while. I believe it has affected him. Certainly we hate to see him go, but that's just part of football sometimes," Gruden said.

McKay said Johnson approached him and Gruden four or five weeks ago and was emphatic about his desire to leave Tampa Bay at the end of this season.

"Following that I really feel Keyshawn's actions changed. His approach to us, to the organization and to the team, changed. A lot of mandatory workouts missed, a lot team functions that are football related that were not attended and it became, in our mind, a problem. And one that needed to be addressed," McKay said.

McKay declined to say whether missing a mandatory team meeting on Monday was the final straw for Johnson.

"We're trying to win football games, and at some point you have to say this is not in the best interest of winning. We had another path we could have taken, which is to go down the disciplinary path. ... But this isn't about money. We're not trying to get any money back from Keyshawn. We're not trying to make an example," he said.

Said Gruden: "It's nothing personal."

"Hopefully he finds what he's looking for. We're in the same search for excellence and answers to how to get out of the funk we're in," he said.

Joe Jurevicius, who returned last week after being sidelined seven games with a sprained knee, likely will take Johnson's spot in the lineup.

"I really enjoyed playing with Keyshawn for the last 2½ years," Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson said. "We won a lot of games together and won a Super Bowl together. It's unfortunate that it had to end this way, and I wish him well."

Keyshawn Johnson was the first pick in the 1996 draft by the New York Jets. The Jets traded him to Tampa Bay three years ago for a pair of No. 1 draft choices.

Johnson played for Bill Parcells in New York. Parcells, who is now the Cowboys coach, has been praised by Johnson as being the best coach he's ever played for. Parcells was asked about Johnson on Wednesday.

Never changing his expression, Parcells said, "I'm not allowed to comment on players on other teams that are under contract."

When pressed for an answer again, Parcells repeated the same sentence.

Johnson was the Bucs' leading receiver the past three seasons and helped them win their first Super Bowl in January.

The eight-year pro reached 600 career catches quicker than any other receiver except Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison.

Johnson had three catches for 34 yards in Sunday's 20-13 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

"Keyshawn Johnson is a very good football player. He's been very productive for us. I think everybody knows that," McKay said.

McKay spoke with Johnson by telephone after Stanley informed the player of the move.

"He was OK. He understands some of the issues," McKay said. "I'm sure he's surprised. ... By the same token I think he looks at it as he's going to get a fresh start coming down the road, and hopefully he makes the best of it."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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