Kick returner Chad Morton joined the Washington Redskins yesterday and said he was relieved that an arbitrator freed him from the New York Jets. Morton wants to join the Redskins largely because team officials told him he would return punts as well as kickoffs and receive increased playing time at running back.
"This is definitely the outcome I wanted," Morton said. "I was happy with the Jets, but this is a better fit for me here and a better opportunity for me here. . . . At least I get a chance here. With the Jets, I knew I had no chance of playing."
In a surprise decision, arbitrator Richard Bloch awarded him to the Redskins by ruling Monday that the Jets improperly matched a five-year, $7.945 million offer sheet last month to the restricted free agent. The Jets, after consulting with the NFL management council, declined to match a provision in the Redskins' offer to void the final two seasons of the contract. Bloch ruled that the Jets were required to match that provision to retain Morton.
The New York Post reported yesterday that the fact that Bloch is a Redskins season ticket holder raises "serious questions about the integrity" of the arbitrator.
People involved in the hearing conducted by Bloch last Thursday said he told the attorneys before the session of the potential conflict of interest, and asked if any of them objected on the grounds that his impartiality might be affected. The league, the NFL Players Association, the Jets and the Redskins had representatives at the hearing, and no objections were raised.
"He, on his own initiative, informed the parties and gave everyone a chance to object if they wished," said Richard Berthelsen, the union's general counsel who attended the hearing. "That's what is customarily done in these circumstances, and no one objected."
The office of Dennis Curran, the general counsel for the management council who criticized Bloch's ruling in a written statement released Monday by the Jets, referred questions on the matter to an NFL spokesman, who declined to comment. Bloch did not return messages. Jets officials declined to comment.
Morton, who arrived at Redskins Park late yesterday afternoon, said when he heard about Bloch's ruling in a phone message Monday from his agent, Leigh Steinberg, it was "the best news I'd heard in a long time." He said he never considered signing a new contract with the Jets when the team made a last-ditch effort late last week to settle the dispute.
"I don't think any amount of money would have compensated for me being able to reach my dream of playing running back again," Morton said.
The Redskins suddenly have a surplus at tailback, having added Morton and Trung Canidate to go with Ladell Betts and Kenny Watson. Watson appears the most vulnerable to being squeezed out of the mix, but Coach Steve Spurrier said yesterday that the club has no immediate plans to get rid of any of the four.
"We're going to give [Morton] the opportunity to play some tailback here and there," Spurrier said. "He's an excellent receiver out of the backfield, from what I understand. He's quick. There are a lot of ways we can use him. . . . We've got four. It'll have to work itself out."
Spurrier said the club still is considering re-signing quarterback Danny Wuerffel, an unrestricted free agent. The Redskins signed Rob Johnson to back up starter Patrick Ramsey but remain in the market for a third quarterback, and their plans to add a youngster are complicated by the fact they have only four selections in this month's draft.
Wuerffel remains on the free agent market after his one-year contract with the Redskins expired. The Redskins have explored the possibility of drafting a quarterback but, after giving their fifth-round pick to the Jets as compensation for Morton, are left with choices only in rounds two and three and a pair of seventh-round selections. The club likely will take four quarterbacks into training camp and have three on its roster entering the season.
"We haven't closed the door completely on bringing Danny back, unless he gets a better opportunity and signs somewhere else," Spurrier said. "He did some good things last year at times. We'll see how it works out. Certainly we plan on having Patrick be our number one guy, and we're giving Rob Johnson a chance to be our number two guy. But we need to find two more."
Redskins officials have wavered throughout the offseason about whether to re-sign Wuerffel, who made four starts and appeared in seven games last season and completed 58 of 92 passes for 719 yards, with three touchdowns and six interceptions. Shane Matthews, Spurrier's other former University of Florida quarterback who spent last season with the Redskins, signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last month after the Redskins made no attempt to re-sign him.