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Fantasy Notebook: Voluntary Workouts On, But Not For All...
If it's March, it must be time for teams around the NFL to crank up their "voluntary" workout programs. And by voluntary, we mean those who elect not to take part can't be fined for their absences.

Now, even though players can't actually be "punished" for failing to attend such get-togethers, they rarely get free pass. If nothing else, those who choose to skip these workouts face an array of pressure tactics ranging from good-natured ribbing to less-than good-natured nagging -- some of which can lead to outright hostility -- from coaches, teammates and in many cases the media.

As Redskins Pro Bowl linebacker Marcus Washington explained it this past week: "It's pretty voluntary, like if your wife or girlfriend tells you. ... [Not to] get her nothing for her birthday, and then if you don't come home with a present, you know you're in trouble. It's kind of like that."

I couldn't have said it any better myself. ... So, with that explanation in mind, let's take a look at a few skill players currently having issues with their respective team's "voluntary" programs. ...

In New York. ... Three weeks into the Giants' off-season program, there still has been no sign of Jeremy Shockey. And his quarterback is turning up the heat.

In an article published Friday, New York Newsday beat man Neil Best reported that Eli Manning called his tight end last week and urged him to show up soon to give them a chance to work on timing. Shockey apparently did not commit, but Manning is hopeful.

"I think he sees my point, so hopefully, we will get him back here in the next few weeks when we start throwing more," said Manning.

While the Giants' off-season strength and conditioning program is indeed voluntary, head coach Tom Coughlin makes no secret of his belief that all players should participate.

In Shockey's case, Manning couldn't agree more.

The second-year signal caller said in watching tapes from last season: "There are plays when we're not on the same page on things, and he could've had maybe 15 more catches, maybe more than that, if we were on the same page and knew what we were doing. That just comes from not getting reps."

This is Manning's first full offseason with Shockey and as such, the still-developing passer said, potentially is the most important of their careers together for establishing chemistry.

"This is a time, we have our first offseason together, this is probably the most important off-season for us just to get it down. I'm talking to him and I think he sees my point. Hopefully we get him back here in the next few weeks when we start throwing more."

Manning and his receivers, including recently-signed Plaxico Burress, took the field for the first time Tuesday, engaging in the sort of rudimentary work that might seem trivial but is essential to building familiarity.

"We're starting it slow, running a couple of routes over and over again," Manning explained. "It's not real exciting for them, it kind of gets repetitive and old, but I think that's the best way to do it."

For what it's worth. ... New York Post staffer Paul Schwartz advised readers that Shockey has spoken with Coughlin about his absence, so there are no surprises here. As noted above, players can't be fined for missing these workouts; but Coughlin regularly stresses the importance of having the team together during this early bonding period.

"You know what my philosophy is for this time of year," Coughlin said. "It's all about team, all about people proving their commitment to each other."

Nonetheless, Shockey appears to be committed to working out on his own. And nobody seems to doubt that he's putting in the effort.

"Look, I'd rather have Jeremy Shockey here, I'd rather have any player here," GM Ernie Accorsi told Schwartz, "but I know one thing, I know he's working hard. I know the worth-ethic of the Miami group. He's got pride."

In the coming weeks, Manning, who stands to gain considerable locker room cachet by successfully convincing Shockey to return, and the receivers will increase the passing repetitions and he's hopeful the star tight end will see things his way and show up in New York in a timely manner.

"Hopefully, if I keep calling him every day and leave messages, it might get through," he said. "I'll try to do what I can to get him here because I think it would be important ... I'll make some promises to get him 100 balls or something. ..."

In Jacksonville. ... Running back Fred Taylor has been absent from the Jaguars' off-season program this week, and neither Taylor nor the team is offering much in the way of an explanation.

As Florida Times-Union staffer Bart Hubbuch reported it, Taylor, who has been the Jaguars' rushing leader in five of his seven NFL seasons, is coming off knee surgery in January and did not attend Monday's opening session at Alltel Stadium or participate in Tuesday's on-field running and agility work.

Except for one mini-camp, the Jaguars' entire off-season program is voluntary.

Taylor's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said Taylor's continued absence from the off-season program is "between Fred and the team." Taylor also missed part of the 2003 off-season program -- the first under coach Jack Del Rio -- because he was in the middle of talks that later produced a long-term contract extension.

Paul Vance, the Jaguars' senior vice president of football operations, told Hubbuch that he was unaware of any dispute between Taylor and the team.

"As far as I know, he's rehabbing in South Florida and doing exactly what he's supposed to do," Vance said, referring to arthroscopic surgery Taylor had in Miami nearly three months ago.

Rosenhaus declined comment when Hubbuch asked if Taylor's absence was related to his knee surgery.

Taylor's uncertain situation has prompted the Jaguars to look closely at taking a running back high in this month's NFL Draft.

In a related note. ... Greg Jones said he hasn't received official word from the coaching staff but expects to concentrate on fullback this season. The former Florida State standout split time at both backfield positions as a rookie, even starting the final two games at halfback for the injured Taylor. ...

In Washington. ... Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs expressed frustration over the absence of newly-acquired receiver Santana Moss from voluntary off-season workouts, which are in their third week, and believes the newcomer should be attending regularly.

"Everybody should be here," said Gibbs, who stressed the importance of workouts during a team meeting that neither player attended last week. "Everybody should be here, and it's very disappointing to us when they're not here."

Moss was Washington's most significant off-season addition and was acquired from the New York Jets last month receiver Laveranues Coles, who requested a trade after expressing concerns about Washington's offense.

According to Washington Post staff writer Jason La Canfora, Gibbs said he believed that Moss's absence was related to his desire for a new contract, adding, "We're just working through a process there and trying to work [his contract] out, but the bottom line is everybody should be here."

New York Daily News columnist Gary Myers advised readers this morning that Moss, entering the final year of his contract, doesn't want to risk getting hurt before he gets a new contract. The Redskins want to sign him long-term, but there's been no deal so far.

When asked if he thought a resolution was near, he said: "I have no idea. We're just trying to work our way through it."

Rosenhaus, who (surprise, surprise) represents Moss, told the Associated Press last month that the former Jet was thrilled to be a Redskin. He did so while hinting that his client could be happier.

"He's going to be a focal point of their offense," Rosenhaus said. "I anticipate that we'll be able to work out a very lucrative extension for him."

La Canfora went on to advise readers that much like Manning reached out to Shockey, Patrick Ramsey left a phone message with Moss but has yet to speak with him and has no idea when he might report to Redskins Park. While not criticizing the receiver, Ramsey said he believes a lot can be accomplished in voluntary workouts.

"Our job now is to prepare," Ramsey said, "and you don't even want to really approach it from a job standpoint, you want to approach it kind of from a pride standpoint, that this is what I want, this is what I need to do -- and maybe even more than this -- to get ready to get to where we want to go as a team. It's not like I have to go do it, it's like, 'It's time to go get it done.'"

Receiver Taylor Jacobs, who has not spoken to Moss but is also represented by Rosenhaus, said: "I think Santana's got some things he's got to work out right now with the organization and his agent. We share the same agent, and I know our agent will get it done.

However, even Jacobs had to admit, "being out there with the guys this time of year is great, and it's a chance to get better."

That's especially true of Moss, who is supposed to be the focal point of an expanded offense after Washington ranked 30th in passing last season. The voluntary sessions are a time in which to learn the playbook and get in sync with the quarterbacks, who have been in meetings with coaches, running drills and throwing to receivers.

Said Ramsey: "We're doing more than just playing catch. I don't know if chemistry is the word for it, but timing is one of the words you could use, and knowing what to expect from a receiver, and a receiver knowing what the quarterback is going to throw, where the ball is going to be, the velocity.

"This, as little as we are doing right now, is important, and what you do in March and April -- surprisingly enough -- really affects what happens come training camp."

Veteran backup Mark Brunell took it a step further when he suggested: "If you want to be a Redskin, you might want to be here. ..."

And following up on an item from earlier this week. ... While the Eagles started their voluntary off-season program Monday, Terrell Owens was nowhere to be found.

His new agent, the ubiquitous Rosenhaus, however, was very visible during a trip to team headquarters last week.

According to Philadelphia News beat man Les Bowen, sources said no holdout threats or salary demands were issued in the 5-minute meeting, in which Rosenhaus told Eagles president Joe Banner he likes to sit down with team officials when he signs new clients.

Oh yeah. ... Rosenhaus also told Banner he felt new client Owens "has outperformed his contract."

"All I can say is, stay tuned," Rosenhaus told Bowen after the meeting was over. Asked if he would be returning, the agent said, "I have a feeling I will be."

Speaking to a group of reporters outside team headquarters, Rosenhaus added, "I've got some work to do with the team and I'm planning on getting it done."

None of which is overtly threatening. However, by failing to immediately and completely discount the possibility of a training camp holdout, Rosenhaus clearly sent the message intended.

Meanwhile, in a chat on his Web site, Owens was asked about the agent switch and according to Bowen, wrote: "ALL BUSINESS!!! I LUV PHILLY!!!" followed by a smiley-face giving a thumbs-up.

Of course, when it comes to the business end of things, the Eagles tend to do pretty well. In fact, team officials believe the best way to deal with situations like this is by being resolute. The real trouble starts, they feel, when teams abandon their charted course under pressure from players and agents.

Other agents who deal regularly with the Eagles scoffed yesterday at the idea that Rosenhaus, despite a string of flashy, high-profile deals over the past year or so, will be able to significantly adjust his newest client's deal, which remains among the top handful of wide-receiver contracts in the league.

"I've known Joe Banner for 15 years. There's not a chance," one agent told Bowen.

Another agent told Bowen that Rosenhaus is good at creating controversy and pressure that make some teams buckle, just so they can end the crisis.

"He creates an enormous stink, and sometimes something happens," the agent said. ...

Speaking of enormous stinks. ... It should come as no surprise that Freddie Mitchell, who has almost certainly already talked his way out of Philadelphia, believes Owens should get whatever he can from the team.

"He should renegotiate," Mitchell told Philadelphia Inquirer staffer John Tomase on Friday. "I hope he gets his due. I wouldn't say he's underpaid, because if you sign a contract, you signed a contract. Whatever T.O. does, it's great for him. He's worth all of $25 million up front."

Mitchell might be right; Owens might well be worth it. But that doesn't mean the Eagles will pony up. Whatever the case, Owens' demands puts the Eagles in a lose/lose situation.

As Trenton Times staffer Mark Eckel explained it: "If they give in to him, there will be 50 other players in line. Keep in mind that while Owens is well respected by his peers for his on-field ability, he would not win in a popularity contest among his teammates.

"If the Eagles do what they are likely to do and ignore Owens' requests, they face the possibility of an unhappy, perhaps even sulking, star. And an unhappy Owens is not a good Owens -- just ask anyone in San Francisco. ..."

In Dallas. ... Keyshawn Johnson recently missed three days of workouts with the team. When head coach Bill Parcells called to find out why he was missing, Johnson indicated he was dissatisfied with his contract, according to ESPN's Ed Werder.

But not according to Johnson. ...

In fact, Fort Worth Star-Telegram beat writer Clarence E. Hill Jr. advised readers that the veteran receiver laughed at Werder's report -- which also had the Cowboys potentially drafting Southern California receiver Mike Williams because Johnson was disgruntled about his contract.

Johnson said he talked to Parcells and vice president Stephen Jones about his future, but "I have never had discussions about a new contract."

After catching 70 passes for 981 yards and six touchdowns in 2004, does he believe he is worth more than the $1.5 million base salary he is set to earn next season?

Of course he does.

But Johnson said he plans to honor his deal and has proved as much by making all but one of his off-season workouts.

"I am content where I am because I see the big picture," Johnson said. "And I don't operate like that with Bill, not with him. We have a friendship and relationship that works. Besides, if I had a problem with my contract, I wouldn't be working out. I wouldn't be running."

The notion that Keyshawn might want more money is hardly earth-shattering. Nor does it matter much since the insistence he'll be an active participant in the off-season program will be easy to track.

Stay tuned. ... I'll have more on Johnson -- and the other high-profile skill players skipping "voluntary" workouts -- over the next month or so. That's when mandatory mini-camps crank up and we start to get a better feel for where everybody "really" stands. ...

Other Fantasy-specific news and notes from around the NFL. ...

In Atlanta. ... Falcons quarterback Michael Vick will fight the allegations in a lawsuit filed against him by a woman claiming to be his former girlfriend.

The suit claims Vick knowingly infected the woman with genital herpes in April 2003.

"With respect to the lawsuit recently filed against him, Michael Vick wants all his fans, teammates and coaches to know that he intends to defend himself in the legal process but will not let this matter distract him from his primary goal of bringing a championship to the fans of Atlanta," Lawrence Woodward, Vick's Virginia Beach-based attorney, said in a statement released to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday.

"Michael Vick will have no further public comment on this matter at this time."

Sonya Elliott filed the civil suit against Vick, 24, in Gwinnett County State Court on March 14, seeking unspecified damages for Vick's alleged negligence, unwanted physical contact (civil battery), and potential future medical complications.

"Mr. Vick's statement speaks for itself. He was not concerned with our client's well-being when he gave her the disease without telling her he was infected, and he is apparently no more concerned now," Cale Conley, Elliott's attorney, said Thursday.

Vick's attorneys have until May 6 to respond to Elliott's complaint, at which time a motion for discovery will be filed. From that point, both sides would have at least six months to gather evidence before a trial date could be set.

Regardless of its legal merits, it's safe to assume this lawsuit will draw considerable attention over the next few months. And given the highly personal and rather embarrassing nature of the situation, it's hard to believe -- his lawyer's protestations to the contrary notwithstanding -- this tawdry episode affair won't become a serious distraction. ...

Also in Atlanta. ... Head coach Jim Mora and general manager Rich McKay insist that Peerless Price will open mini-camp later this month as the starter. Price has declined interview requests, and Mora and McKay both say they know nothing about the corrective retinal procedure the player was supposed to undergo in February.

But as the Sporting News suggested on Monday, the problem obviously affected his ability to catch passes because Price never adjusted to the glare created by his protective shield. What irritated some teammates, however, was Price's tendency to give in to frustration and break routes off prematurely.

TSN went on to note that the team was able to hide Price's problems because of its success running the ball, but this offseason is critical for the six-year veteran, who must work on his timing with Vick on deep balls and crossing routes. ...

In Tennessee. ... Looking for insurance for Steve McNair and his surgically repaired sternum, the Titans had a protective vest specially built for him. He can wear it under his shoulder pads and count on it to deflect impact away from the middle of his chest.

But after revealing on Friday that he was finished pondering retirement and would return to play for the Titans, McNair said he's hoping he won't have to use the equipment.

"Right now I'm not going to say it's out of the question," he told Nashville Tennessean staffer Paul Kuharsky. "But if my chest heals up the way I think it's going to heal up, I wouldn't want to wear a vest. I want to be as elusive and mobile as I can to go out and do what I do best and that's make plays on my legs and throw the ball well."

If he wears the additional protection, he expects he'll get used to it.

But according to Kuharsky, his initial trial left him feeling a bit like a medieval knight.

"I tried it on, and it's like a big armor suit," McNair explained. "It's OK. It's not restricting me as much as I thought it would. If it comes down to it, yeah, I will try it. ..."

In Detroit. ... A week into the Lions' off-season program, players and coaches are watching Joey Harrington in order to gauge his reaction to the signing of free agent Jeff Garcia, who TSN characterizes as a "clear favorite" of head coach Steve Mariucci.

TSN's report went on to suggest that whether the Lions' brass wants to admit it or not, there's going to be a training camp battle between the two quarterbacks, and the players want to see how strongly Harrington responds.

To them, if Harrington rises to the challenge and wins the job, he'll have earned their respect and developed some leadership qualities. If Harrington either shrinks from the struggle or simply isn't good enough to beat out Garcia, the team will simply move on.

And make no mistake about, Garcia is in town to play.

As the Sports Xchange noted on Monday, Garcia readily admits he doesn't think of himself as "just" a backup.

"No, I don't," the veteran signal caller said. "And that's why it was a difficult decision for me to make. I really got caught in a position where there really weren't any starting jobs available or there weren't any teams that had those positions available that were looking at me.

"So I found myself looking at some opportunities that were more backup positions and I had to go where I felt I was going to be the most comfortable as far as the staff is concerned, as far as the offense is concerned, where I could fit in right away and continue to better myself if that opportunity does come to get back on the field."

TSN added that many players believe there will be some controversy in training camp, but the issue will be settled by the start of the season. ...

In Green Bay. ... Receiver Robert Ferguson is doing much better now, three and a half months since suffering a concussion and neck injury on an illegal clothesline hit by Jaguars safety Donovin Darius in a game at Lambeau Field.

Ferguson told the Xchange last week that his health was much better since the injury, which forced him to miss the last two regular-season games and a playoff game.

"I saw a lot of doctors and they all told me just to rest my body," Ferguson said. "I'm actually a lot better than I was during the season."

Still, there is no guarantee he will be cleared to participate in the mini-camp at the end of April.

"There is a concern about the mini-camps, but I should definitely be good by training camp," he said. "I'm not worried about it at all. ..."

In San Francisco. ... According to San Jose Mercury News staffer Dennis Georgatos, Mike Nolan came away from his first mini-camp as the 49ers' head coach with a new appreciation for the team's receivers, including Brandon Lloyd, Arnaz Battle and Derrick Hamilton.

The group has been maligned as lacking playmakers, but Nolan said: "They're very hard working. They impressed me more than I anticipated."

Lloyd, meanwhile, insisted he is not fazed by the possibility the 49ers will choose a No. 1 receiver in the draft or perhaps sign free agent David Boston, who is trying to return from a significant knee injury.

"Whatever's going to help this team," Lloyd told the Oakland Tribune. "It doesn't matter. I mean, I'm very, very confident in my ability to play football out there. So it doesn't matter who they bring in. ..."

In Minnesota. ... According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Vikings, who signed free-agent receiver Travis Taylor from Baltimore last month, no longer have interest in acquiring Washington receiver Rod Gardner. ...

And finally, in Miami. ... Dolphins head coach Nick Saban continues to defend Ricky Williams with what Palm Beach Post staff writer Joe Schad characterized as "more fervor than anyone has since the back retired."

"Maybe I shouldn't say this," Saban said during a Thursday afternoon press conference. "But part of the reason that everybody was so let down about Ricky Williams was the guy was a pretty good guy around here for a couple of years. He was a very well-liked sports figure around here for a couple of years and did some very nice things in the community.

"Now, if he was a bad guy all of the time, everybody wouldn't have been so shocked and upset about some of the things that occurred. ... I don't have an opinion that this guy was a really, really bad guy all of the time he was here. He was a really good guy and he made a positive impact on a lot of things while he was here. It just didn't end up very well.

"I don't think that anyone's association with Ricky Williams is negative to me."

While Saban's willingness to play nice and say all the right things by no means ensures Williams' return to Miami, it certainly leaves the door open.