During the 1990s, NFL fans witnessed some of the greatest receiver play in league history to that point.
Pass catchers such as Michael Irvin, Jerry Rice, Andre Rison, Cris Carter, Herman Moore, and Andre Reed consistently made highlight-reel catches and led their teams to victory.
Carl Pickens was another ’90s receiver who brought excitement to an otherwise mediocre Cincinnati Bengals franchise.
Darnay Scott, Jeff Blake, Carl Pickens #bengals pic.twitter.com/uM8f8G5OvT
— JOE SHIESTY SERIES 3 BRRR EDITION (@JoeyBrrrr) February 5, 2022
In 1995 and 1996 combined, Pickens had nearly 200 catches and was also the NFL co-leader in touchdown receptions in ’95.
Eventually, he got tired of the losing and openly complained about the Bengals’ coaching staff.
His comments led to a unique clause in Pickens’s contract, although the animosity led him to leave the Queen City in 2000.
This is the story of Carl Pickens.
Multi-Sport Star in High School
Carl McNally Pickens was born on March 23, 1970, in Murphy, North Carolina.
Murphy is a small town, but one with a great football tradition.
Murphy High School has won nine 1A state championships in its history.
Pickens contributed to that total when he attended the school in the mid-1980s.
Because of the lack of roster depth, Pickens played on both sides of the ball for the Bulldogs.
Sticking with football, @bulldogs_mhs standout Carl Pickens was our second featured athlete. Nobody could stop him in high school, as his coach David Gentry can attest. After Murphy, Pickens starred for @Vol_Football and the Cincinnati Bengals. pic.twitter.com/xmf93y1VSB
— Chris Womack (@Chris_Womack) April 24, 2020
Showing a natural talent for the sport, Pickens hauled in 71 receptions for more than 3,000 yards and 24 scores in his prep career.
He also added 15 interceptions during that time and helped Murphy High to two undefeated seasons and state titles in 1986 and 1987.
“In football, he had all the state records for all classes,” said his high school coach, David Gentry.
During his senior year in ’87, Pickens was named a Parade Magazine All-American and a SuperPrep All-American.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also ranked Pickens as the seventh-best high school football prospect in the country.
As if his football accolades weren’t enough, Pickens played hoops as well.
He averaged 27 points per game on the hardwood and attracted the coaching staff of numerous top-25 programs.
For good measure, Pickens competed in track and once jumped over seven feet in the high jump.
Pickens wanted to continue playing football.
He weaned down his abundant choices before deciding to stay close to home and attend the University of Tennessee.
All-American as a Defender
Knoxville, Tennessee is less than 100 miles from Murphy, which meant Pickens’s family and friends could come to see him play.
That wasn’t the primary reason that Pickens chose to play for the Vols, however.
“Tennessee has a reputation for very good receivers, and I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could play here,” he said.
The Volunteers struggled in 1988 while Pickens redshirted, and the coaching staff asked him to suit up.
Pickens declined, not wanting to use up eligibility for a struggling five-win program.
In 1989, Vols head coach Johnny Majors used Pickens on offense and defense.
Clearly, Pickens thrived in both roles, collecting four interceptions and a pick-six as a free safety and catching seven balls for 81 yards and two scores on offense.
Who is the best CFB player people no longer talk about? My vote goes to Tennessee WR Carl Pickens, based on his 1989 redshirt freshman year alone. Played both ways in final four games with reception & INT in all four. He also returned kicks that year, with a 93-yd TD at LSU. pic.twitter.com/xGkLjGaVhv
— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) October 11, 2019
He also returned kicks and punts, taking one kick 93 yards to the house in a game against LSU.
Tennessee improved in ’89 and finished with an 11-1 overall record while Pickens took home All-SEC and Freshman All-American nods.
That included a 31-27 win over 10th-ranked Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, a contest in which Pickens made a key interception.
He was named Defensive MVP for the game.
Pickens Shines on Offense
Despite the fact that he was a talented defender, Pickens only wanted to play on offense.
Therefore, Majors and company kept him as a receiver in 1990.
He responded with 53 catches for 917 yards and six touchdowns and added six kick returns for 141 total yards during the opening week game against the Colorado Buffaloes.
On November 10, Pickens nearly led the Vols to an upset of top-ranked Notre Dame when he set a single-game record with 13 catches for 163 yards in a 34-29 loss.
#TDIVH (11/10/90) #VFL Carl Pickens set a #Vols record with 13 catches vs. Notre Dame: https://t.co/KZYfHcOCMH pic.twitter.com/3DlAZFrs01
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) November 10, 2015
During a game against the Kentucky Wildcats weeks later, Pickens had 10 receptions for 201 yards and three touchdowns.
His yardage total was the third-highest single-game total in program history and Pickens’s three touchdowns tied a school record.
Tennessee’s 8-2-2 regular season bought them a Sugar Bowl date with the Virginia Cavaliers.
By halftime of the contest, the Vols were down 16-0 and then embarked on a furious comeback in the second half.
In the fourth quarter alone, Tennessee scored 20 points including a 15-yard touchdown catch by Pickens to close the gap to 19-17.
The Vols won the game 23-22 on a one-yard touchdown run by running back Tony Thompson.
After being named first-team All-SEC in 1990, Coach Majors predicted big things for Pickens in 1991.
“Pickens is an exceptional athlete, probably as fine an all-around athlete as I’ve ever had the pleasure to coach,” Majors said. “Now there’s a heavy responsibility on him in the receiving corps to come through for us, since four of our receivers were drafted by the NFL, one in the first round—Alvin Harper (by the Dallas Cowboys).”
Even without Harper drawing away coverage in the secondary, Pickens still exploded for a huge year as a junior in ’91.
Tennessee wide receiver Carl Pickens (15) hauls in a touchdown pass from Andy Kelly during the No. 10 Vols 36-25 win over Ole Miss on Nov. 16, 1991. pic.twitter.com/lxtM32ZG2m
— Vol Journal (@Vol_Journal) August 18, 2021
While Tennessee was experiencing a 9-3 season, Pickens had 49 receptions for 877 yards and five touchdowns including huge 100+ yard receiving days against UCLA, Auburn, and Florida.
Although the Vols lost to Florida on October 12, Pickens still caught seven passes for 145 yards.
He was selected as a first-team All-American as well as a first-team All-SEC for the second time.
By the time Tennessee lost to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl, Pickens had made up his mind that he would skip his senior year and enter the 1992 NFL Draft.
“I’ve been doing those cone drills for three years,” Pickens remarked before the ’91 season. “I don’t think I’m going to get any better at them.”
Pickens Becomes a Bengal
After a college career in which he caught 109 passes for 1,875 yards and 13 touchdowns and played special teams and defense, Pickens was ready for the pros.
Surprisingly, given Tennessee’s reputation for talented receivers, he wasn’t selected until the second round by the Cincinnati Bengals.
22 yrs. ago today, a pair of Pro Bowl #VFLs were selected in 1992 #NFLDraft: Dale Carter & Carl Pickens #DBU #WRU pic.twitter.com/8JMRUiiZxs
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) April 26, 2014
Pickens was just the second receiver taken in the draft after Michigan’s Desmond Howard went to the Washington Redskins in the first round.
In any case, there was no doubt that Cincinnati needed Pickens’s help.
After appearing in Super Bowl XXIII in 1988 and returning to the playoffs two years later, the Bengals had nose-dived to 3-13 in 1991.
In ’92, Pickens joined a Cincy roster that included veteran Boomer Esiason and rookie David Klingler at quarterback.
Receiver Tim McGee was in his seventh year with the team, and there were some talented players on the offensive line, including future Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Munoz.
The Bengals went 5-11 in 1992 under first-year coach David Shula while Pickens started 10 games and hauled in 26 passes for 326 yards and one touchdown.
He also returned punts and had 18 returns for 229 yards and a touchdown.
After the season, Pickens was named Offensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press.
Cincinnati didn’t get much better and could only muster three wins in 1993 and 1994.
Klingler had taken over for the departed Esiason in ’93 and Munoz retired, leading to an offense that ranked dead last in the league.
Pickens tried to help out where he could, collecting 43 passes in his second year and then erupting for 71 passes, 1,127 yards, and 11 touchdowns in 1994.
Before @ochocinco there was Carl Pickens. From 1994-1995 Pickens became the first #NFL player to have at least 5 catches and a receiving TD in 8 straight games
Pickens had 540 rec for 7,129 yds and 63 YDs @BengalsHof @Bengals @bengaljims_BTR @BengalsGenius @BengalsBackyard pic.twitter.com/F0Oi3CraCF
— Let’s Talk NFL 🏈 (@TalkFootball34) June 16, 2021
In the second round of the 1994 NFL Draft, Cincinnati drafted San Diego State receiver Darnay Scott.
Even with the offense ranked 23rd in the NFL in 1994, Scott proved to be a valuable complement to Pickens, adding 46 receptions for 866 yards and five scores of his own.
“I could say Rice and Taylor or Stallworth and Swann, but I’d be lying. My favorite WR duo when I was younger was short-lived but awesome 1994 @Bengals WRs Darnay Scott and Carl Pickens.” – @PSchrags pic.twitter.com/9fRIEyQ37f
— Good Morning Football (@gmfb) June 14, 2019
The Bengals also added former New York Jets quarterback Jeff Blake before the season began, and he pushed the ineffective Klingler for playing time.
NFL Co-Leader in 1995
With Blake slinging the pigskin, and Pickens and Scott catching a ton of passes, the Bengals were fairly exciting to watch in the mid-1990s.
In 1995, the Bengals’ offense improved to 14th in the league and the team increased its win total to seven.
Pickens lit the NFL on fire with 99 receptions for 1,234 yards and tied for a league-best 17 touchdowns (with Cris Carter).
In honor of Carl Pickens' team record of 17 TD in 1995, the @Bengals open the season in 17 days #WhoDey pic.twitter.com/pJdsIt4L5g
— Dan Hoard (@Dan_Hoard) August 25, 2016
Incredibly, the NFL in 1995 was filled with such highly talented pass catchers that Pickens’ reception total was good for the 10th best in the league.
However, his 99 catches broke a Bengals’ team record.
Pickens’s 1995 numbers led to his first Pro Bowl and a second-team All-Pro nod.
He was honored with both accolades again a year later when Pickens broke his own record by hauling in 100 passes for 1,180 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Cincinnati’s record improved to 8-8 in 1996 as their offense improved to fifth in the NFL.
The team initially began the year 1-6, leading to Shula’s firing.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet took over for the remainder of the season and led the Bengals to a 7-2 record.
11/10/96: Bengals WR Carl Pickens sets a franchise record with 12 receptions in an AFC Central showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cinergy Field. Interim Head Coach Bruce Coslet wins his 3rd straight game in a 34-24 Bengals victory. #BengalsImages #BengalsThrowbacks pic.twitter.com/bulP2YDT7t
— Kevin (@BengalKev) July 16, 2019
In addition to Pickens’s stellar numbers, the offensive turnaround included Scott’s 58 catches, and running back Garrison Hearst added over 800 yards on the ground.
When the season ended, Coslet was named Cincy’s full-time coach beginning in 1997.
1997 & 1998
With the 43rd overall pick of the 1997 NFL Draft, Cincinnati selected Washington Huskies running back Corey Dillon.
During his rookie year with the team, Dillon became the focal point of Coslet’s offense.
The rookie responded with 1,129 yards and a league-best 4.8 yards per carry.
Dillon’s production led to a dip in Pickens’s numbers, though he missed four games during the year.
In ’97, Pickens and Scott caught 106 passes between them for 10 combined touchdowns.
Dillon had that many scores running the ball.
Cincinnati reached seven wins in 1997 and then cratered to 3-13 in 1998.
Pickens, however, got the most out of his 16 starts that year by pulling in 82 passes for 1,023 yards and five scores.
While his play was positive, his attitude was becoming anything but.
July 20, 2000 – The Carl Pickens era is over in Cincinnati as he's cut before training camp. Darnay Scott becomes the new #1 receiver. Pickens was outspoken against bringing back coach Coslet.
This Day In #Bengals History by Geoff Hobson pic.twitter.com/aN2iftaBa5
— 𝗕𝗲𝗻𝗴𝗮𝗹𝘀𝗖𝗮𝗽𝘁𝗮𝗶𝗻 🐯⚓ (@BengalsCaptain) July 20, 2020
Coming out of college, Pickens was known as the “Dude with the ’Tude” because of his frequent clashes with Majors and his coaching staff.
Majors explained that Pickens was supremely talented but he had to “learn to handle adversity better.”
That was hard to do when playing for the Bengals.
By 1998, Pickens’s patience was starting to crack.
He was one of the best receivers in pro football, but he rarely had the chance to show his skills on national television because of Cincinnati’s frequent losses.
“You rarely see me on TV,” he said. “I’m rarely asked to do stuff like that. No commercials, no endorsements or posters, and stuff like that. You just don’t see it. It has been frustrating. You don’t get as much notoriety. This is a team game, and when the team does well, everybody benefits from that.”
Pickens also addressed the team’s issues to anyone who would listen.
“We were just having, I guess, growing pains,” he said. “We are letting little things distract us.”
When asked about Coslet’s coaching ability, Pickens was evasive.
“Next question,” he said.
The Pickens Clause
In 1999, things came to a head between Pickens and Bengals management.
Cincy blundered through another losing season under Coslet, and Pickens had 57 receptions for 737 yards and six touchdowns.
As a Bengal, Pickens had a substantial five-year, $23 million contract and a great partnership with Scott.
From 1994 to 1999, the duo combined for 788 catches, 11,131 yards, and 80 touchdowns.
October 10, 1999#Bengals 18 #Browns 17
Akili Smith 221 yds 2 TDs (first career start)
Corey Dillon 168 yds
Darnay Scott 110 yds
Carl Pickens 2 TDs#RuleTheJungle #WhoDey pic.twitter.com/lYhbrYuJbR
— Brandon (@NastyNati740) October 10, 2022
Despite those facts, Pickens had had enough of the losing and Coslet’s less-than-inspirational play calling.
He shared his feelings about the coaching staff once again, wondering openly why Coslet hadn’t been fired after two subpar seasons.
Team president Mike Brown summoned Pickens and told him the organization was adding a clause to his contract before giving him his $3.5 million signing bonus.
“The Carl Pickens Clause” stipulated that Pickens would lose a portion (or all) of his signing bonus if he continued to disparage the team in the media.
Carl Pickens talked so bad about the Bengals organization while playing there that they added the "Carl Pickens Clause" to his contract… Which means he would have to forfeit all or some of his signing bonus if he insulted the organization in public😂😂😂
— FACTUAL OPINIONS OF DRED (Habitual Line Stepper) (@FACTUALOPINION0) June 16, 2020
The receiver bit his lip through the end of the ’99 season but was waived by the Bengals during training camp in 2000.
At the time, Pickens was the franchise leader in receptions (530) and touchdowns (63, since surpassed) and was second in team history in yardage (6,887).
Pickens Becomes a Titan
Not long after his release from Cincy, the Tennessee Titans signed Pickens to a new five-year deal.
“We are delighted to add a player of Carl’s caliber to the roster,” Titans general manager Floyd Reese said. “You always look for playmakers on both offense and defense, and Carl definitely qualifies as a playmaker.”
The signing looked like a fresh start for Pickens.
He was returning to the state where he had played college football and would also play for a team that had been in Super Bowl XXXIV just months before his arrival.
Sad times. I'm sure @bengaljims_BTR remembers how Carl Pickens joined the #Titans a few seasons later https://t.co/wXU7VtMLV5 pic.twitter.com/zC8JWjkLWV
— 𝕃𝕦𝕧 𝕐𝕒 𝔹𝕝𝕦𝕖 (@BudsOilers) May 27, 2020
During the year, Pickens started six games and tried his best to distance himself from his reputation with the Bengals.
“I think if you really got a chance to know me, you would see what’s written and said is completely different than what you may see,” Pickens said. “(My image) has never been an issue or a concern here. I think the people here knew the situation I was in. Athletes and owners and coaches, they understand that. People on the outside don’t understand that.”
That season, the Titans played the Bengals twice and won both games.
While Tennessee won 13 games (the first winning season in Pickens’s pro career), Pickens had just 10 catches for 242 yards and no touchdowns.
During the 1999 season, Pickens tore a hamstring, and the injury continued to limit him with Tennessee in 2000.
The injury eventually led to Pickens being cut by the Titans.
He tried to return as a member of the Dallas Cowboys but was released by Dallas in training camp in 2001 and retired.
“He had no choice,″ agent Steve Zucker said. “He hasn’t been able to run more than 10 yards. He just can’t accelerate at all.″
During his career, Pickens had 540 receptions, 7,129 yards, and 63 touchdowns.
He also had 307 yards in punt returns with another score.
Pickens was a two-time Pro Bowler, two-time second-team All-Pro, the NFL’s receiving touchdowns co-leader in 1995, and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1992.
Since retiring from football, Pickens has remained out of the limelight.
In 2014, he was arrested for misdemeanor battery for allegedly attacking his wife after a movie date.
This angle is wild. Catch of the year so far by George Pickens. pic.twitter.com/B2GGbA2c4l
— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) September 23, 2022
Pickens’s son, George, played receiver at the University of Georgia and was selected in the second round (just like his father) in the 2022 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
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