Chiefs release Larry Johnson
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The time had come for the Kansas City Chiefs to make a decision on their Larry Johnson problem, so the power triumvirate of Clark Hunt, Scott Pioli and Todd Haley convened on Sunday night's plane ride home from the game in Jacksonville, Fla.
They talked some more late into the night after their arrival in Kansas City, and again early Monday morning.
"We wanted to make sure," Haley said, "this was something we were right on. We put a lot of time and energy into it."
When the talking was finished, the consensus was that Johnson, once one of football's top running backs, had to go.
The Chiefs called the former Penn State running back with their decision about 7:30 a.m. and quickly moved to eradicate any physical evidence he ever existed. By lunchtime, his practice-facility locker had been stripped of its name tag and cleaned out. Left behind were three white towels neatly folded and stacked, and a few clothes hangers.
Erasing Johnson's aura will be more difficult for the Chiefs. Johnson is second on the Chiefs' all-time rushing list, only 75 yards from the top spot.
But he will be remembered more for the repeated off-field incidents during his 6?? seasons that turned him into a continuing disruptive force inside the locker room.
"Apparently he wasn't fitting into the plans of the Kansas City Chiefs," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "That's been the message since Scott and Todd (started) their time here. They want guys that are going to fit into what they want to do and their plans and try to develop and build a team."
Johnson appeared an odd fit with the Chiefs' new administration, which demands players who put the team first. Perhaps the surprise was that he lasted as long with Pioli and Haley as he did.
"I don't know if I had the sense this would happen," said Johnson's agent, Peter Schaffer. "I had the sense this was a possibility. It's like breaking up with your girlfriend. Even though you know it's coming, it still hurts."
While Johnson's departure may have seemed inevitable since he was suspended two weeks ago for tweets that included criticism of Haley's coaching background and anti-gay slurs, it appears the Chiefs labored over the decision. That they waited until the last moment to make their decision would seem to confirm that.
They also may have waited to get a glimpse in Jacksonville of what life would be like without Johnson. Jamaal Charles started in place of the suspended Johnson, and Kolby Smith played for the first time all season. Though they lost 24-21, the Chiefs appear pleased with what they saw from Charles and Smith.
The Chiefs had plenty of reasons to part with Johnson: the anti-gay slurs, the criticism of Haley, his substandard play this season (he had a feeble 2.7 yards-per-carry average and no touchdowns) and the almost-certain feeling that Johnson would erupt again.
"It wasn't any one thing," Haley said. "It was the totality of the situation, even before I was around here."
The Chiefs had a few compelling reasons to keep Johnson. They will have to pay him the rest of his salary, about $2.1 million, if no other NFL team claims him off waivers by Tuesday afternoon.
The Chiefs also wanted to avoid the precedent of releasing a player who wanted out, as Johnson apparently did. But the Chiefs may not view this situation as setting a precedent because freedom has its price for Johnson.
He forfeited a week's salary, or about $330,000, because of his suspension. Recent incidents also are another huge smudge on a record already full of them.
"We've got to handle every situation differently," Haley said regarding the issue.
The Chiefs could have saved themselves this mess by parting ways with Johnson before the start of the season. But instead of going by Johnson's history and what they heard about him, the Chiefs went by what they saw.
During the offseason, Johnson was by all accounts an exemplary member of the team. He worked hard enough and appeared sincere enough about wanting to stay in Kansas City and with this team that the Chiefs wondered whether he had indeed changed.
They also had no replacement for Johnson lined up. Smith, because of last year's knee injury, started practicing only last month.
"Every decision we've made here since Scott got here and I got here has been to do what we thought was best for the football team," Haley said, defending the decision to keep Johnson. "Some of those decisions might appear real good at times, and a lot of them might appear real bad at times. But each and every one was made in the best interests of the Chiefs at the time it was made, as this one is right now.
"(Building the Chiefs) is a process. I've been reminded by a lot of the people I lean on over and over again that it is a process and it's the beginning of the process. It's not the middle, and it's not the end. It's the beginning. This is all the beginning portion of that process."
For Johnson, though, it's the end of one of the most controversial Chiefs careers in team history.
"He will be missed," Smith said. "He was more than just a teammate. It's unfortunate what took place, what happened today. Now we've got to move on. Jamaal, Dantrell (Savage) and I have to move forward and continue helping this team win a game."
First Published November 9, 2009 10:48 pm