The Washington Redskins yesterday signed free agent fullback Larry Centers, a longtime tormentor when he played for the Arizona Cardinals, and, according to team sources, are considering signing running back Lawrence Phillips, whose college and professional careers have been marked by problems off the field.
Meanwhile, new Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder said he has not made a decision regarding the future of General Manager Charley Casserly. A decision will not be made until after the Snyder group's $800 million purchase of the team and Jack Kent Cooke Stadium from the Cooke estate officially is completed, probably late this week. Neither Snyder nor his associates offered Casserly a long-term vote of confidence, however.
Snyder previously announced that he would retain Casserly and Coach Norv Turner through the 1999 season, but the Bethesda marketing executive apparently has not given Casserly private assurances about his job security, sources said.
The Washington Times reported yesterday that Snyder has decided to fire Casserly. But Snyder, in an interview yesterday, said: "No decisions have been made whatsoever."
Karl Swanson, a spokesman for Snyder, said that Snyder has no plans to dismiss Casserly, whose contract runs through the 2001 season.
"Charley Casserly is the general manager," Swanson said. "There's no reason to change that position or title. We said when Dan was picked by the trustees that we would retain Charley Casserly and Norv Turner, and there's no reason to change that. Norv and Charley are the two members of the team that Dan has had a great deal of contact with."
Centers, 31, signed a one-year contract with a $425,000 salary, plus a $250,000 signing bonus. He has been one of the NFL's most productive pass catchers out of the backfield for much of his nine-year NFL career, but the Cardinals released him last month. Redskins officials said that Centers will compete with Larry Bowie in training camp for the starting fullback job.
"Larry Centers is one of the premier backs in the league at catching passes," Casserly said yesterday at Redskin Park. ". . . He's been a thorn in our sides for many, many years. . . . In our eyes, we're a better football team today than we were yesterday."
Centers said: "I'm excited. This is a great organization. . . . I think this team is on the cusp of being a great football team. From what I've seen, for whatever reason, in the middle of the year their focus has gone away at times. Hopefully I can bring not only some talent and bring some help to the football field, but bring some leadership to the locker room as well."
Centers became the first NFL running back to have a 100-reception season, with 101 catches for the Cardinals in 1995. He had 69 receptions last season, and his 466 catches since 1993 are the most by an NFL running back over that span. Bowie is coming off a '98 season in which he suffered a broken leg, and team officials seemed confident yesterday that they had added a low-cost, potentially productive starter.
At least for now, the Redskins are planning to have Skip Hicks and Stephen Davis share most of the tailback duties. But sources said team officials are considering trying to sign Phillips, the former University of Nebraska star who previously had been released by the St. Louis Rams and Miami Dolphins.
Phillips, 24, most recently was with the Barcelona Dragons of the World League, the NFL's developmental league in Europe. He became the first World League player to rush for 1,000 yards and scored 14 touchdowns in 10 games with the Dragons, who lost the World Bowl last month to the Frankfurt Galaxy.
While in college, Phillips pleaded no contest to assault for throwing a former girlfriend down a flight of stairs and was sentenced to probation for one year. He was drafted in 1996, the sixth pick overall, by the Rams. While on probation, he was arrested for drunken driving in California, leading to 23 days in jail.
Phillips was released by the Rams and signed by the Miami Dolphins in December 1997. In July 1998, he was accused of punching a woman in the face at a suburban Miami nightclub after she refused to dance with him. Phillips was cut by the Dolphins during the 1998 preseason. He was sentenced to six months' probation after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge in that case.
The Buffalo Bills also may be among the handful of NFL teams interested in Phillips, league sources said. Redskins officials said they're aware and wary of Phillips's off-field troubles and are debating whether to pursue him, but some people in the organization apparently remain interested.
As for Casserly, the general manager said yesterday: "Job speculation is part of the job being a general manager in the National Football League. And certainly with a change in ownership, there's going to be more job speculation. The only way I'm approaching this thing is, my intent is to be here and do my job until somebody tells me that I don't have a job or I'm not here."
Sources said that some members of Snyder's group have had discussions with several NFL personnel people, but Snyder's associates indicated those talks were not necessarily about the Redskins' GM job. Former San Francisco 49ers personnel director Vinny Cerrato served as a consultant to the failed Redskins bidding group of Snyder and New York real estate developer Howard Milstein.
Two sources familiar with Snyder's plans said that Snyder hasn't given any long-term guarantees to Casserly or any other Redskins employees. Snyder's evaluation period for Casserly and Turner, sources said, has begun and could last through the season, unless Snyder believes the two cannot get along.
Turner, whose contract also runs through the 2001 season, appears to be more secure than Casserly. Turner and Casserly have had a strained relationship in recent seasons, but Turner appears to be set for the time being.
Participants in the final deliberations involving the Snyder group, the trustees for the estate of the late Jack Kent Cooke and the NFL said they're hopeful of applying the official finishing touches to the deal on Thursday or Friday. Snyder completed his deal with the estate in April and received NFL approval in May.
The Larry Centers File
Size: 6-0, 225
College: Stephen F. Austin
Drafted: Fifth Round (115th), 1990
Experience: 9 years
Born: June 1, 1968
Pro Bowl: 1995, 1996
CAPTION: Fullback Larry Centers, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals, is introduced as the newest member of the Redskins. He is an accomplished receiver, with a career high of 101 catches in 1995.
CAPTION: New Redskins fullback Larry Centers celebrated a touchdown in NFC wild- card game on Jan. 2. He will compete with Larry Bowie for the starting job.