This wasn’t about new Washington football coach Chris Petersen flexing his disciplinarian muscles for show.
Sadly, Marcus Peters gave him no other choice.
Time and again, Petersen tried to be stern yet rehabilitative with his star cornerback, reacting to Peters’ emotional antics with punishment followed by attempts to understand and get through to the passionate player. And time and again, Peters took advantage of the longer leash and made the coaching staff look foolish for its efforts.
In the end, it seemed Peters was daring his coach to drop the hammer. That’s what Petersen did Thursday, announcing that he had been forced to kick a potential first-round NFL draft pick off the team. The decision came after Peters’ latest outburst — an argument with an assistant coach during practice Wednesday.
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When you talk about Chris Petersen, the noted disciplinarian, it’s easy to portray him flatly as a rigid, no-nonsense authoritarian who punishes at the slightest hint of disobedience. In reality, Petersen, though tough, also understands that he must connect with his players on a level beyond fear. He believes chemistry is just as important as discipline, and he works hard to earn trust rather than demand it.
In covering Petersen’s first season, it has been a pleasant surprise to observe his diligence in making a connection with his team. Petersen is strict when it comes to behavior, but he’s also sensitive about the process of players getting comfortable with a new system. It’s not just about the players embracing change. Petersen says it’s his job to win them over.
This is what makes Peters’ dismissal so disappointing. He wasn’t the victim of an oppressive new system. He didn’t get booted off the team because he couldn’t play for an uncaring dictator eager to bring in his own players.
Instead, Peters resisted change so much that he ruined his final season at Washington.
His argument at practice was at least the third such incident of the season. Peters threw a fit on the sideline after committing a silly penalty during the Eastern Washington game in September, which led to Petersen benching him the rest of the game and suspending him the next week. After Peters was reinstated, he played good football, but on several occasions during games, he blamed other members of the Huskies’ young secondary for perceived mistakes. Then he had another sideline shouting match during last week’s game at Colorado, leading to the practice dispute that preceded his ouster.
Now, Peters must rescue his NFL draft stock. Many draft analysts consider him the top cornerback prospect in the 2015 class, which would ensure him a first-round selection in an increasingly pass-happy league. But Peters will have to address his character red flags, explain why he couldn’t get along with Petersen and prove he’s dependable. He can recover from this and still be drafted high (no later than the second round), but he might have cost himself a few million dollars on his first contract.
It would’ve been much easier to be on good behavior for a year. The Huskies’ new defensive system is quite similar to the one he thrived in when Justin Wilcox was the coordinator. The only real difference is the people teaching it, and the coaches came to Washington with a healthy respect for Peters, a second team All-Pac-12 selection last season.
Peters was among a quartet of elite Husky defensive players likely to enter the 2015 draft. Danny Shelton bought into the new system, and he has become perhaps the best defensive lineman in college football. Hau’oli Kikaha bought in despite switching from defensive end to a new buck linebacker role, and he leads the nation in sacks. Shaq Thompson bought in, and he’s now the most versatile player in college football.
What could Peters have accomplished if he had embraced change? He had too much on the line to misbehave like this. He even became the father of a little boy last month.
At the moment, Peters is a cautionary tale without a direct path to the NFL.
“It’s unfortunate, but we’ve got certain standards and operating procedures,” Petersen said. “We’re trying to do something special here. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Like I said, we wish him the best. It’s always a hard thing — the worst part of the job, without question.”
The news will be met with reactions of, “Wow, Coach Pete doesn’t play.” But Peters was not the subject of a who’s-the-boss message sent by Petersen. The coach actually stretched the limits of his patience and forgiveness for the star cornerback, and he still couldn’t get through to Peters.
One day, when Peters matures, he’ll realize what a mistake he made.