St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

The Bucs are ready to rush forward

Team must prepare to run without Pittman. DT Russell close to signing.

ROGER MILLS
Published March 30, 2004

PALM BEACH - General manager Bruce Allen said Monday the Bucs are ready to move on without Michael Pittman, who faces sentencing and suspension from the NFL after pleading guilty to a felony count of endangerment Thursday in Phoenix.

But, Allen stressed, the team won't turn its back on its starting running back.

"Michael Pittman helped this team win a Super Bowl and played his heart out last season through a lot of difficult circumstances that were going on," Allen said. "I don't believe in abandoning people."

The Bucs also seem willing to embrace those abandoned by others. They are close to signing defensive tackle Darrell Russell, whose history includes league suspensions.

Russell reportedly has agreed to a one-year deal for the league veteran minimum of $660,000.

Allen said the Bucs took Pittman's situation into consideration from the beginning of free agency and have made a point of bringing in running backs as security.

"I think you saw that in free agency (because) of the unknown with Michael, what will transpire in the courts and what will transpire with the league," Allen said. "That's where the acquisition of Charlie Garner and Jamel White became so important. We've had some conversations with Michael, and I feel comfortable that he understands the predicament that he's in."

Pittman's legal problems go beyond his recent guilty plea stemming from a domestic incident with wife Melissa in May. He faces a hearing that could result in the revocation of the probation he received after he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor chargers from a separate domestic violence arrest involving Melissa in 2001. The league suspended Pittman for one game at the start of the 2001 season.

"What we hope, we don't always get," Allen said. "Each case is handled individually, based on the circumstances. It'll take the league a while to go through everything that transpired. ... I think this will go through the middle of summer. The key is we're going to control what we can, we're going to support Michael."

Allen, who has talked to the league about Pittman's situation, said he believed there could be "a positive outcome." The Bucs, however, aren't going to sit back and wait.

"We're still looking for every position," Allen said. "Every position on the team, we're still going to add players to it. We have the draft coming up, and after that there will be more free-agent signings in May or June."

Meanwhile, the hole left by the departure of Warren Sapp and the shift of Anthony McFarland looks as though it will be filled by the 6-foot-5, 325-pound Russell.

Allen said Russell, 27, is not signed, but all indications are that it's a matter of putting pen to paper.

"I've talked to him; I've talked to different people," Allen said. "I don't know about foregone conclusion.

"Is it something (where) we will possibly give him an opportunity to work within Rod Marinelli's plans and work within our structure? Yes."

Russell comes with more baggage than Pittman.

The former No.2 overall pick by the Raiders in 1997 was suspended for four games in 2001 after failing to comply with the league's drug policy. He then tested positive for another banned substance and was placed on a one-year suspension that was rendered indefinite by the league.

While on suspension, Russell was charged as an accomplice in a sexual assault case. On Sept. 12, 2002, prosecutors dropped the charges citing a lack of evidence. Russell was reinstated last fall and signed with the Redskins. The Redskins suspended him for the final game of the 2003 season for showing up late to a practice.

"Each player we have to look at individually, you look at their issues individually," Allen said. "I don't think there's any doubt that he's paid a heavy price professionally for the mistakes he's made. The price as a player has been very high.

"To be suspended, to lose the opportunity to be a Pro Bowl (player) and millions and millions of dollars."

The Bucs and Russell have close ties that date to his college days. He played for defensive line coach Rod Marinelli at USC and played for coach Jon Gruden with the Raiders. Early in free agency, Marinelli visited Russell in California.

"Rod obviously has a longtime relationship with Darrell, longer than anybody else," Allen said. "He hasn't been able to have discussions with him since he's been on someone's roster until (now). We wanted to make sure Rod was comfortable where he was, and Rod wanted to be comfortable where he was."

While Russell likely has earned nothing more than a minimum deal, the Bucs likely will have conduct clauses written into his contract.

"It would be up to Darrell and how he performs," Allen said. "In football, contracts aren't guaranteed. Not just Darrell. We could sign Joe Smith tomorrow, and Joe Smith could do something or use terrible judgment and rob a bank, and we're going to cut Joe Smith and he knows that. ... It's not like when you take someone in the draft and you're committed to the dollars.

"I don't see it that way."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.