Not to know Dexter Manley was to love him. From afar, he was a charming, exuberant and candid man-child, so much in need of affection and help that only a heart of stone would begrudge him sympathy and succor.
But to know him, up close and every day, as the Washington Redskins and their coaches have for the last nine years, was to be driven crazy by him. Up close, he sometimes did not tell the truth, was a braggart, a loose cannon in a team game. Too often, you couldn't count on him for anything -- except to break your heart.
Yesterday, on fourth-chance-and-none-to-go, the Redskins chose to punt. They kicked Manley out of Washington. They hope they never see him again. But they're pretty sure they will. Dexter was often a nightmare for Joe Gibbs. Now, he'll probably be a recurrent one -- but in another uniform.
Dexter had to go. And yesterday, Dexter went. For once, a rotten situation had a satisfactory ending. Not a happy ending. Nowhere close to that. But a tolerable conclusion for everyone concerned.
Manley got what he deserved. The NFL turned his "lifetime ban" as a three-time offender of the league's drug policy into a one-year suspension. That was fair. Everybody deserves a second chance. Or, in Dexter's case, a second, third and now a fourth chance.
But let him get it somewhere else.
The Redskins richly earned their split second of pleasure in punting Dexter toward the horizon. Manley was a Redskin yesterday for approximately a nano-second. Before you could say, "Dexter's back," Dexter was gone. That's how quickly the Redskins waived him.
During his nine years with the Redskins, Manley did four things consistently. He sacked quarterbacks. He made outrageous, colorful, irresponsible and juvenile statements. He abused himself with alcohol and cocaine. And he was a problem for Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs.
In the NFL glossary of terms, if you look up "distraction," you see a picture of Dexter.
Yesterday, Gibbs thanked Dexter for the good times, and the good games, wished him well and said he thought it'd be good for all concerned if Dexter got a "fresh start." All of those were sincere statements. It's almost impossible to dislike Manley. That is, if you don't know him. If you do know him, it's almost impossible not to wish he were a thousand miles away.
Few people could be more heart-warming than Manley testifying before Congress about his attempts to conquer his adult illiteracy. Few people could be funnier, in a coarse way, than Manley exchanging off-color quips with the Greaseman on drive-time radio or explaining his side of the famous "spitting" incident. In retrospect, Mike Ditka's quote about Manley having "the IQ of a grapefruit" may seem cruel. But it was appropriate at the time. As usual, Manley had shot off his mouth. But somebody finally shot back.
That's half of Manley. Ingratiating. Apologetic. Apparently sincere. Asking forgiveness. Flashing that smile.
But the Redskins also saw the other half. To many players and coaches of the '80s, Manley was, always and above all, a pain in the neck.
In the locker room, everyone will wish him well. But not many will miss him. He was a self-promoter who constantly called attention to himself and took credit from his teammates.
He was an agitator, always providing bulletin board material for other teams. Maybe Dexter could back up his bravado, but if you were his teammate, how much would you appreciate it if he stirred up your man?
Finally, off the field, he was a coach's nightmare. What would he do next? What would he say next? What would he miss next -- a meeting, a game or, finally, a whole season?
Even in his prime, it was scary to try to build a defense around Manley. He was an exceptional pass rusher, but sometimes mediocre against the run.
Around the NFL, and around America, many will wonder how a 6-4 Redskins team that hasn't made the playoffs in two years could give away such an impact player. Even if he's 32. Even if he has a year of rust. Even if he almost begged to come back to the Redskins.
The answer is that two addictions have really been broken in the last year. Manley has stayed away from drugs. But the Redskins have also broken their addiction to Manley. Without him, their defense and their locker room improved at the end of last season as Washington won its last five games. This year, only three NFC teams have yeilded less points than Washington.
For Manley, the Redskins colossal snub may have a therapeutic side effect. It's commonplace for doctors who treat addicts to say that behavior and environment are often linked. Old places, old habits. New places, new habits.
Still, it's important for Manley to digest and understand just how much the Redskins did not want him. He was their guy; and they said no thanks, as they do every summer to any rookie they cut. That's how much he alienated the people who knew him best. And that's how much he needs to change.
"I'm grateful, very grateful. I want everybody to understand that," said Manley yesterday. "But at the same time I'm experiencing a sense of loss. This has been nine years of my life. This has been my home. So I'm not in a great talking mood right now."
It's good to hear Dexter not talking. Instead, maybe he's thinking.