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Rhett out as camp begins

Workhorse running back Errict Rhett can't use a stopwatch to prove his worth at the bargaining table. But what he needs to bring is an alarm clock.

Late for work for the second time in his three pro seasons, Rhett did not show up when 81 other Buccaneers reported to training camp Sunday.

Rejecting a proposal thought to be worth close to $2-million per season, Rhett told the Bucs he will hold out rather than play under the terms of the final year of his contract, which is worth $336,000 this season.

Failing to reach an agreement by the Bucs' Sunday deadline, general manager Rich McKay said the club no longer will negotiate with Rhett and expects him to play for his current salary.

McKay said Rhett also will be subject to fines of up to $5,000 per day.

"The time has come for him to play out the '96 contract. I expect him to do that," McKay said. "He's not here today, which is disappointing, but I also understand that. I don't know what his decision will be. Truly the ball is in his court."

By reaching agreements Sunday with their remaining three draft picks _ Regan Upshaw, Marcus Jones and Mike Alstott _ and re-signing veteran Jim Pyne to a one-year deal, the Bucs managed to have all their players under contract at the start of training camp for the second consecutive year.

Rhett is the first holdout since, well, Errict Rhett, who reported 16 days late as a rookie in '94.

Rhett could not be reached for comment Sunday. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said he plans to continue talks.

"Obviously, we made a decision," Rosenhaus said. "I'm going to continue to try and negotiate with the Bucs. We never really did get that close."

Last season, Rhett became only the 12th player in NFL history to rush for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in his first two years in the league.

But it took him more than 300 carries per season to accomplish that feat. His career average is 3.6 yards per carry and his longest run as a pro is just 19 yards.

Even so, the Bucs were willing to extend the contract for Rhett, the 32nd pick in the '93 draft.

"We did not get to a contract, and as we had talked about for the last six to eight weeks, we basically had agreed up front that if a contract wasn't reached by training camp, that would be it for negotiating," McKay said.

Tampa Bay is believed to have offered Rhett a better contract than the deal Natrone Means eventually signed with San Diego _ one season after he led them to the Super Bowl. Means was offered a four-year deal worth $7.33-million with a $700,000 signing bonus.

"Drew has said something that's true: We never really got very close, which is surprising to me," McKay said.

With Rhett out, the Bucs aren't exactly blessed with a stable of running backs. They will turn to tailback Jerry Ellison, who averaged 8.4 yards last season and scored five touchdowns, but carried the ball only 26 times. Alstott and veteran LeRoy Thompson also will receive more carries in training camp.

"You have injuries all the time, you have different situations that come up," coach Tony Dungy said. "We would do the same thing as if he came and sprained his ankle on the first play. We'll see how long he's out, but we're going on business as usual. We have some pretty good backs that we have a lot of confidence in, including (Alstott). That will be our focus, to see what the guys we have can do, and many times it's an opportunity for someone to step up."

Rhett's first holdout cost him as a rookie. He was slow to pick up Sam Wyche's system and did not start until the ninth game of the season.

"I don't know the effect (of the holdout)," McKay said. "The system is the biggest thing. I don't think you have to worry about Rhett being in shape. The thing that hurt him last time is he took a little while to pick up the system _ probably six, seven weeks into the season. Again, we've got a new system installed this year and it's not a good thing."

Bucs training camp

WHO: Eighty-two players compete for 53 spots on the regular-season roster.

WHEN: Players reported Sunday. First workout is at 8:30 a.m. today.

WHERE: Pepin/Rood Stadium on the campus of the University of Tampa.

DAILY SCHEDULE: Workouts at 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. are open to the public. The schedule is subject to change because of the weather.