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Bears willing to pay the price for principles

Opening day in the NFL is more than two months away, but General Manager Jerry Angelo and the owners of the Chicago Bears, the McCaskey family, already deserve some sort of award. They came to the decision last week that if the price of another Super Bowl appearance is retention of Tank Johnson on their roster it's too steep.

Johnson is a very good defensive tackle, a huge man who has been vital in shutting down opponents' running games. His presence made Tommie Harris, the Bears' All-Pro defensive tackle, better. Johnson kept blockers occupied, freeing the skilled Chicago linebackers to make important plays.

He also behaved like an incorrigible. Already suspended for the first half of the 2007 season because of a conviction for illegal gun possession and then violating probation, which earned him two months in jail, Johnson was days removed from promising the Bears and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that he would clean up his deportment when he was pulled over in his car by Arizona police at 3:30 a.m. and charged with suspicion of DUI.

That exhausted the Bears' patience with Johnson. They had cut him all sorts of breaks, but this was the final straw. "He violated our trust," said Angelo in releasing the player. It was no small decision since the Bears are in a long contract wrangle with Lance Briggs, another important defensive player whom they may end up losing. Nevertheless, the Bears put principle first.

Let's hope Chicago isn't the last team to show principle when dealing with persistent deportment problems, but don't count on it.

A Nevada court may take care of the Pacman Jones problem for the Tennessee Titans. Jones has been charged with two felonies for his part in a melee at a Las Vegas strip club that resulted in the shooting and subsequent paralysis of a club bouncer, a serious assault on another bouncer and the shooting of a woman patron. Pacman, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, has been in so much police-blotter trouble during his two-year NFL career that Goodell already has suspended him for the entire 2007 season.

In Cincinnati, Bengals players have chalked up more arrests than victories over the last year and a half. One of their wide receivers, Chris Henry, will miss the first half of the season serving another suspension. In Minnesota, the Vikings are still attempting to live down their infamous "love boat" outing on a nearby lake that featured a number of prostitutes and lascivious acts committed in public. In Atlanta, quarterback Michael Vick's possible involvement with illegal dog-fighting on his property is still being investigated by authorities.

The NFL is a $6 billion business. The people who own its 32 franchises are not happy when their fishbowl enterprises are marred by unsavory publicity. Goodell is the first league commissioner to fully confront the problem and apply discipline with teeth in it.

How have so many bad actors entered the league in the last 20 years or so? Among the major reasons is that too many teams don't pay enough attention to character and background when they do their scouting. Most teams practice "red-flagging," not drafting collegians with consistently troubled backgrounds. The Buffalo Bills, going back to the beginning of the Marv Levy-Bill Polian era, made a practice of using their security department to check out potential draftees with campus and town police as well as other sources. It isn't a fool-proof system, but it dramatically cuts down on the draft-day mistakes.

The New York Giants used to send a scout to the old Japan Bowl, strictly to fly on the same plane to Tokyo with the college stars so he could observe their deportment. It saved them both heartburn and money.

The wiser teams also use special caution when considering players from certain colleges. The obvious example is the University of Miami. Both Pacman Jones and Chris Henry came from West Virginia University. In one important nationally televised game the Mountaineers were easily winning, Henry threw a sideline tantrum and his coaches could not quiet him, which should have signaled how undisciplined he would become as a pro.

The other side of the coin is colleges with reputations for sending good citizens to the pros. Syracuse hasn't done much winning lately, but when it was winning big for so many seasons it was rare that an Orange player came into the NFL without a good reputation.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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