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."

Ironically, Wheatley's attitude was never questioned prior to his arrival in New York. According to his college coach, Gary Moeller, Wheatley was a good student (he majored in education) and "a nice kid, nonsmoker, non drinker." Moeller's only issue with the running back was his commitment to football, since he divided his time between the Wolverines' gridiron and track programs. "But the problems he's having are a mystery to me," said Moeller, who is now an assistant coach with the Detroit Lions. ‘, he wasn't a jerk or a big pain in the butt for us. He was a nice person with a lot great qualities. He wasn't an outstanding practice player, but he was a good worker. On the field, I've seen him do things at the [college] level above what he's doing now."

"The Giants have always scrutinized their draft picks extensively; that's why we went with him," Young said. "All of us felt he would make a difference on the field sooner or later. I like him and I hope things break for him. I don't want to second-guess the coaches, but my personal feeling is that I wish he could get on the field. I was hoping he'd get there this year. I still think the skill level is there."

But it's the coach's decision that counts, and Fassel has bristled when ever he's been asked whether the running back could help the Giants' struggling offense. Many of his team mates, however, feel Wheatley can make a difference.

"He works hard in practice and runs hard," said veteran wide receiver Chris Calloway, himself a Michigan alum. "That's all you can ask of a guy. It's been hard to get him in, but I think Tyrone deserves a shot."

If he doesn't get one this year, Wheatley may be the running back of the future that never was. Even though he still has one year remaining on a five-year, multimillion dollar contract, many around the league feel that the Giants will leave him unprotected in next spring's NFL expansion draft, meaning that he could be carrying the ball for the new Cleveland Browns in 1999. Wheatley's agent, Joel Segal, who refused to comment directly on the rumors, did tell the Voicethat "if Tyrone doesn't have the opportunity to play with the Giants, we'd welcome the opportunity to get a fresh start."

After this season, many wearing Giants blue could use one.

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