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With the Chiefs’ offseason program set to begin Monday, we could be on the verge of answering the questions we’ve kicked around for the past several weeks. Specifically, I’m referring to the futures of Larry Johnson, Brian Waters, and Tony Gonzalez.
While participation in offseason workouts isn’t mandatory, Todd Haley has been clear that he believes the program is a key element for success. He has credited the high level of attendance Arizona had in their offseason program as one of the building blocks for their Super Bowl run.
With a brand new regime running the show, this year’s offseason program obviously takes on a whole new level of significance. It will be the Chiefs’ first chance to get a feel for their new leadership, and vice versa, as the Pioli/Haley era moves forward.
So what might we learn about the status of those three veterans? Let’s break down each situation.
Since the 2008 season ended, Johnson has been outspoken about his desire to leave Kansas City. He repeated those feelings as recently as February, citing the team’s rebuilding effort and his reduced role in the offense.
Of the Chiefs’ unhappy trio, Johnson would seem like the least likely of the three to report. But recent statements from Haley and owner Clark Hunt suggest the oft-moody running back may have had a change of heart.
During a press conference last week, Haley said he’d received positive feedback about the offseason plans from all the players he had spoken with. When asked specifically about Johnson, Haley repeated that he’d heard nothing negative.
Of course, that entire exchange may have been nothing more than coach-speak. Haley made reference to getting good responses “from all the guys I’ve talked to,” but never specifically stated that Johnson was among them.
During the recent NFL owners meetings, though, Hunt told the Kansas City Star that he heard Johnson was excited about being a Chief again and that Johnson planned to take part in the offseason program. It’s worth noting that Hunt was only repeating secondhand information – in other words, he hadn’t spoken to Johnson directly – but if the owner of the team can’t get a reliable scoop, what hope is there for the rest of us?
The bigger question, though, is if Johnson has indeed done a 180 over the last month and a half, what might be the cause?
Will Johnson report?
G Newman Lowrance
When LJ last went public with his desire to play elsewhere, Haley hadn’t yet been hired as the new head coach. Would Haley’s arrival make Johnson change his mind? The Cardinals had the league’s worst rushing offense last year and called nearly 40 fewer runs than the Chiefs. For someone who’s been unhappy about his lack of carries, Haley wouldn’t appear to be the cure for Johnson’s problems.
Could it be the Matt Cassel trade? Perhaps seeing the new front office go out and make that kind of investment in their offense caused Johnson to re-evaluate his position.
Or it could be a simple as Johnson realizing that his age, attitude, and legal issues make it highly unlikely that any other team would be willing to pay him as much as he’s currently making with the Chiefs.
Whatever his reasons are, if Johnson actually takes part in the offseason program, it may represent the coming conclusion of his saga. Due to the aforementioned reasons, plus his hefty contract, the chances of finding a team who would actually trade for Johnson have always seemed slim. Even if there was a team out there willing to make a deal, those same factors make it unlikely that he’d command much in return.
If Johnson shows up to work, stops complaining, and tries to move forward with the team, perhaps Pioli and Haley will be less inclined to show him the door, no matter the outcome of Wednesday’s grievance hearing.
On the other hand, if the talk about Johnson’s change in attitude has been wishful thinking, a no-show for the offseason program will likely expedite his way off the roster.
Compared to the other two situations, the issue with Waters seems fairly cut and dry. If he reports for the offseason program, we can assume he’s over having his feelings hurt last month.
If he stays home, however, it would be an obvious sign that a rift still exists. Scott Pioli has indicated that the Chiefs don’t plan to grant Waters’ request for a trade or release, so refusing to report would be a way for Waters to show he’s still unhappy.
If that ends up being the case, and if we believe Pioli when he says the Pro Bowl guard won’t be moved, this issue will continue to drag on until Waters swallows his pride.
The saga with Gonzalez remains the most unique of the three, primarily due to the fact that the future Hall of Famer doesn’t want to go public with his desire to leave the Chiefs.
Make no mistake about it, though – Gonzalez still wants out of Kansas City. How else can one interpret the recent development in which, after Clark Hunt stated the Chiefs weren’t going to trade Gonzalez, the Associated Press quickly quoted “a person close to the Pro Bowl tight end” who said Gonzalez still wanted a trade?
The AP article suggested that Gonzalez would be perfectly happy being a Chief next year if a trade can’t be worked out. If that were true, though, why would he or his representative feel a need to respond to Hunt’s comments?
Does Tony want out or not?
If you hear the owner of the team declaring “we aren’t trading you” and your immediate reaction is to contact the media to continue floating the idea of a trade, you clearly want out of town.
While some will no doubt interpret Hunt’s comments as some kind of coded message intended to drive up the asking price for Gonzalez, there’s no reason not to take the owner at his word. Gonzalez is worth far more to the Chiefs than what the team would get back in a trade, and Hunt’s fairly emphatic statement of “we will certainly not seek a trade” would suggest the front office is aware of that fact.
So where does Gonzalez go from here? In his ongoing quest to avoid harming his relationship with Chiefs fans, it’s highly unlikely he would skip the offseason program. Unlike the other two cases, though, Gonzalez showing up won’t actually mean much of anything. Since he clearly doesn’t want to be positioned as the bad guy in the situation, it would be far more of a surprise if he didn’t report.
But as out of character as it would be, not taking part may be one of the only cards Gonzalez has left to play. Judging by the reaction from Tony’s camp, Hunt’s comments came as a surprise to him. Now that he’s had a few days to let them sink in, will Gonzalez continue playing nice as he hopes for a trade, or will he start ramping up his efforts to be shipped out?
Come Monday, we should learn the answer to that question.