A couple of weeks ago, I was on a talk show in Kansas City after Larry Johnson ripped coach Todd Haley on Twitter and twice used a gay slur, and the town was aflame with Johnson anger. I thought for sure the biggest problem for Johnson and his continued employment was that he characterized Haley as a small-timer and ridiculed him as a golf coach -- which, if you didn't know, is what he did for a few years after college.
But one of the hosts, Chris Hamblin, set me straight. Johnson's biggest problem was that he'd taken a slap at Chiefs fans, saying when this all blew over, they'd go back to their $5-an-hour jobs, and he'd go back to "cakin' it,'' and the callers were pasting Johnson for days for his backhanded slap. I guess "cakin' it'' must mean taking it easy and earning $5.5 million for being a pretty good running back three years ago.
That's the biggest part of why Johnson, who used to be the Chiefs' best player, got fired by the team Monday. If the fans are flooding the talk shows and saying they're not going to buy tickets and will stop buying Chiefs merchandise, you can bet they were sending even angrier missives to the team offices.
The other two parts of what turned out to be a fairly easy decision involve money and his role on the team. Johnson's $4.55 million base salary was guaranteed by the team once he was active for the first game of the season, so the Chiefs were going to have to pay him the $2.14 million he had coming for the last eight weeks. What they save is $500,000. That's eight games of the pro-rated per-game roster bonus he was due to earn.
Now if Johnson was a well-liked guy in the locker room, or if this was a one-time blowup, the Chiefs may have gulped and taken him back. But the fan angst, and the fact that he was never going to be part of the long-term solution in Kansas City, made it a relatively easy decision for Chiefs GM Scott Pioli.
Johnson will straighten up and fly right for some contender now, after he clears waivers today at 4 p.m. Eastern time. Adam Schefter presented a compelling and logical argument for Johnson to sign with Pittsburgh last night on ESPN, and I couldn't agree more -- the Steelers need a power back in the wake of the absolute crumbling of Willie Parker as a useable runner, and Johnson badly wanted to be drafted by the Steelers out of Penn State in 2003.
I'm sure wherever he signs he'll talk about how he was misunderstood in Kansas City. Those four assault charges against women; trumped up ... The three suspensions; not my fault ... The gay slurs; just kidding, and everybody uses 'em ... Chiding fans; hey, just letting off steam.
I thought the Chiefs had a tough decision, and if they let Johnson walk, they'd just be defining a path for the players dying to leave a sinking ship -- the Chiefs are 3-30 over the past two-plus years. The only thing I'd criticize Pioli and Haley for now is letting Johnson convince them he'd be a team guy and a good asset to a rebuilding situation. But it was inevitable, probably. If you're going to give players a clean slate, a Johnson conflagration is the price you pay.
Raheem Morris has his Bucs in perspective. It's way too early to say they've turned their team around, but the one thing Morris knows in the wake of Tampa Bay's 38-28 upset of the Packers is it's too early to draw any conclusions.
"This is a nice building block,'' he told me, "but we've got a long way to go. A long way to go. The thing about this team is, they practice passionately. I've told them excuses won't be tolerated, and they haven't given any.''
I asked him if he'd started looking at the standings, and feared being another 1976 Bucs team -- or the 2008 Lions. Tampa Bay was the last winless team in football before Sunday. "Never,'' he said. "I didn't worry about that. I worried about our effort, and it was always there.''
The Bucs now have to make sure they protect rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, who showed confidence and a live arm despite having a couple of frenetic plays against Green Bay. He's the future. Tampa's gone from being the third-oldest team in football to the fifth-youngest in one year, and the record shouldn't be the goal. Player development should be.
Two other points before I get to your e-mail:
-- Get well soon, Willie Yarbrough. The 70-year-old driver of the Madden Cruiser is recovering from recent brain surgery and is on the road to recovery. I got to know salt-of-the-earth Yarbrough on a cross-country trip with Madden almost 20 years ago, and a better man I'll never meet.
-- I know anytime I make a comment about guns or politics I'll get creamed by half of my readers, and so I knew there'd be a dustup when I made the incredibly controversial statement after the rampages at Fort Hood and in an Orlando office park late last week that we need to do something about the easy availability of handguns in this country. Yes, I got your 58,000 e-mails and Tweets on the subject (exaggerating, but only slightly), and instead of getting into a bar fight over it, I'll run a representative e-mail and sum up my feelings and we'll all move on.
This is from Kevin in Arizona: "Peter, the answer to handgun violence is not more laws against them. When you outlaw firearms, only outlaws will have them. Look to D.C. or the UK for the perfect evidence. Handguns are illegal and the crime rate is terrible. Go into a firearm dealer and ask them how many times they've been robbed. I love your column but hate your politics.''
I understand that it takes three things for these incidents to happen -- rage, a willing shooter, and a gun. We need to do some mental-health work on people filled with rage, to be sure. Would a long waiting period or other severe restrictions on handguns have stopped either crime, or the scores of senseless ones we read about every year? I don't know.
Obviously, the shooter at Fort Hood had his legally purchased, non-military-issue handgun for a while. But the easiest thing to do is throw your hands in the air and say there's nothing we can do about these things. We should try. It's a tough issue, but we have to grapple with tough issues all the time in America. We're doing it now with health care.
Is it sensible for 43 million Americans to not have health care? No. So we're trying to find a way to insure every American. Is it sensible for a nut to shoot up a military base? No. So we should see if there's anything we can do about it. I'm not advocating banning guns. I'm advocating having a thoughtful discussion on whether we can do something about the proliferation, and easy acquisition, of handguns, and whether making it harder to acquire them would eliminate even one of these bloodbaths.
Now onto your e-mail:
• THAT'S A PRETTY BIG LEAP YOU'RE TAKING. From Dan of Sunnyside, N.Y.: "In your column you asked if Titans fans still wanted to fire Jeff Fisher, and while I'm no Titan fan, I think the answer is yes. Pretty clear that it was the owner's decision to start Vince Young, not Fisher's. Also seems pretty clear that the move could/should have been made a few weeks earlier. It's a little weird to give Fisher the credit for the last two weeks when the only reason Young is starting is because the owner had to overrule the coach.''
You're making a false assumption, I believe, at 0-6 and coming off the bye, that Fisher would have made the decision himself. He knew he had no choice, regardless what the owner said. If the owner provided a spur to Fisher's hindquarters, fine. But to say Fisher would have kept KerryCollins in blindly just because he didn't want to play Young ... that's just wrong.
• I'M INCLINED TO DECIDE IN JANUARY. From Joseph of Chicago: "If you're the Chicago Bears' management, who are you more inclined to fire, Lovie Smith or Ron Turner? On the one hand, Turner is clearly an ineffective offensive coordinator. On the other hand there's Lovie Smith, who, after making himself defensive coordinator, has coordinated not much other than the decline of the Bears defense that was the entire reason they got to the Super Bowl in 2006. On top of that, Lovie has demonstrated a complete inability to draft, and his profligate trading away of draft picks for marginal talent (see: Adams, Gaines) further mires this Bears defense in its current state.''
First, Smith is not the drafter. Jerry Angelo is. Is it a teamwork thing in Chicago, and does Smith have a major say? Yes. But don't lay the draft failures at the feet of Smith. Lay the failures on defense on Smith. Lay some of the disciplinary failures (Tommie Harris acting up, and subsequently being only a shell of the player he once was) on Smith.
Having said that, I knew there'd be trouble when Brian Urlacher went out for the year, because the Bears were going to use Urlacher as a pivot for everything they did on D, and he had come back healthy and in the best shape he'd been in since the Super Bowl season. That was a killer loss -- like the Steelers losing Troy Polamalu and falling to Cincinnati and Chicago.
When I watch the Bears, I think the offensive line is a major problem. The running lanes for Matt Forte aren't there, and the pocket too often collapses around Cutler. What I'd do is see if Smith can get the team playing more competitively. If not, I'd consider firing him and the staff and starting over in January. But now? Now is not the time to be knee-jerk.
• THE PACKERS ARE 10-15 IN THEIR LAST 25 GAMES, AND THE FANS ARE NOT PLEASED. From Orly Keren of Toronto: "I know your thoughts on Brett Favre have been made clear, but this has to be said: Two years ago the Packers were one bad interception away from the Super Bowl (albeit Brett's fault), and they decided to hand the reigns to Aaron Rodgers. Two years later, we missed the playoffs once and are likely heading there again after a stunning loss to winless Tampa Bay. Management clearly made the wrong choice, but Brett's drama aside, they must be realizing this right about now. When will heads roll, and when will some accountability be taken?''
Good question. I have a feeling Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson will be safe, even if the Packers dissolve and have, say, a 7-9 year. Here's how I look at it: Green Bay was on the right track in 2007, almost making the Super Bowl, and then changed the quarterback, had a bad year while Rodgers grew, and now is having a mediocre year as Rodgers has some good days and bad. Sort of reminds me of Brett Favre his first three or four years, when the Packers teased with 9-7 records and Mike Holmgren pulled his hair out wondering when the kid quarterback would stop making mistakes.
What interceptions were to Favre, sacks are to Rodgers. Now, if the Packers fall apart in the last half of the season, I might be inclined to think about a change. But I still believe McCarthy's a good, smart coach who has control of his team. Let's see how the next two months go.
• SHORT AND SWEET. From Cameron of El Cajon, Calif.: "When will Philip Rivers enter the MVP debate?''
• WHERE'S THE OFFENSIVE LINE HELP? From Blair Williams of Milwaukee: "Great column, as always. The 15 top free agents -- not a single offensive lineman among them. What can the Packers do in the offseason to get better on the OL? Is it going to have to come through a trade or the draft? If it's the draft, do we have to put up with this mess for a couple more years?''
Draft, draft, draft. That's where you build a good line. That's what Ted Thompson will do too. He's not inclined to spend on someone else's rejects, except if he see a guy like Charles Woodson, whom he felt was lost in Oakland.
• DON'T BLAME THE NFL. BLAME THE SCHEDULING FORMULA. From Kevin of Philadelphia: "Why do the Patriots and Colts play each other each year? Is it for high TV ratings? Listen, I enjoy this game every year. I just don't like when an organization -- in this case, the NFL -- changes the rules for certain teams. It was my understanding that NFL teams would play their division foes twice each every season with additional games against different opponents each year. How do the Colts and Patriots play each other each year if not to only make money for the networks and NFL?''
Go to the NFL Record and Fact Books. I have the 2003 Record and Fact Book open to the Scheduling Formula, on page 19. It lists the AFC South opponents, 2003 through 2009. And in 2003, 2006 and 2009, the Colts are scheduled to play New England; it's the same with every non-division AFC team -- every three years, the formula calls for them to play. And in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008, the formula calls for the Colts to play the AFC East team that finishes in the same standings position as the Colts the previous year.
So this was pre-ordained by the league, and if the Colts had finished in a like spot in the standings in any of those other four years, there wouldn't have been a Patriots-Colts game that year. It seems pretty non-conspiratorial to me.