Running on mpty

Tyrone Wheatley: A lost giant in a lost season

When Giants' running back Tyrone Wheatley left the locker room after his team's 20-0 victory over Philadelphia on Sunday, his paycheck was still sit ting on the stool in front of his locker. Perhaps he felt he didn't deserve it.

For the fourth time this season, the former first-round draft pick was listed on Big Blue's inactive list. Wheatley has been in head coach Jim Fassel's doghouse since training camp, reportedly for failing to maintain his playing weight. In his postgame press conference Sunday, however, Fassel said the decision to bench Wheatley against the Eagles "came down to numbers....And the way it laid out, I couldn't get Tyrone in there. It wasn't because of anything with him and I told him that."

Then what is it? So far this year, Wheatley has carried the ball a mere 14 times for 52 yards. True, the Giants, led by Gary Brown's 96 yards on 27 carries, didn't need Wheatley on Sunday. But overall this season, the running game, a hallmark of Giants teams in the '80s and early '90s, has been a bust without Wheatley, ranking 23rd in the league—versus seventh last year, when Tyrone led the team in carries with 152. Of course, the entire Giants offense has been a horror show (it ranks dead last), leaving many to wonder whether Wheatley—with obvious skills and enormous potential—might not be the impact player they're desperate for.

So far, Fassel hasn't really given him a shot. With New York 4-7 and virtually out of the playoff picture, the coach has already described the remainder of the season as a time to "look at some guys." Yet Wheatley still sits. Given that, one wonders when, or if, the former University of Michigan star will ever play for the Giants again.

"This whole league is based on perception," Wheatley told the Voice. "He is the head coach and he has the final say-so. We as players have to let go of our egos and believe in what he says. For me to disagree would be like shooting myself in the foot. He has given me some things he thinks I should work on and I feel I have addressed those things."

Wheatley's falling-out with Fassel follows on the heels of similar struggles with the team's previous head coach, Dan Reeves. Selected as the 17th player overall in the '95 draft, the running back came to the Giants as the second leading rusher in Michigan history and the heir apparent to Rodney Hampton, the team's primary back. He soon ended up on Reeves' shitlist, however, for arriving late to his first training camp following a contract holdout and then aggravating an old hamstring injury.

"He got off to a bad start," Reeves said from Atlanta, where he is now the head coach and general manager of the Falcons. "When you make a guy your number one draft pick, you're hoping he's going to come in and be healthy." Reeves denies holding Wheatley's late arrival and early injury against him, but that, coupled with reports that he never wanted the running back in the first place, certainly affected their relationship.

"That should never have come out," Reeves said of his pre-draft preferences. "Those were discussions in meetings within the organization. You speak your mind and [former Giant GM] George Young decides to go public with what you say. The guy's drafted and he hears that his coach doesn't want him. What's he supposed to think?"

Young and Reeves rarely agreed on anything during the latter's tumultuous four-year tenure in New York. But they do agree on Reeves' preference in '95 for University of Colorado RB Rashaan Salaam, who was drafted later in the first round by Chicago. Young, who called the shots, wanted Wheatley. "Dan didn't agree with it," recalled Young, who retired from the Giants after last season to take a job with the NFL. "He liked another guy. But I don't think that affected what happened with Tyrone when he got here. People disagree on these things. Most of our picks are divine providence anyway."

Indeed, Salaam's career has pretty much mirrored Wheatley's. After gaining more than 1000 yards in his rookie season with the Bears, Salaam missed most of the team's games in '96 and '97 with nagging injuries. Finally, after questioning his attitude and work ethic, Chicago traded the running back to Miami, where he failed a team physical, voiding the deal. He is now out of football.

Similarly, in his short New York career, Wheatley has been accused of slacking off in practice, sleeping in team meetings, and questioning coaching decisions. And like Salaam, he has missed his share of games due to injuries, including last year when he finished second on the team with 583 rushing yards, despite missing the last month of the season with an ankle injury. In three-plus seasons, Wheatley has gained only 1280 yards.

"His attitude wasn't a problem with me, but I did have a problem with his outlook as far as working out and getting in shape," said Reeves. "I don't think he was a guy who has pushed himself as much as he should to get his weight where it should be. I know he has a lot of ability. Whether or not he responds to me or [Fassel], I don't know."

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