A Hardy haul

3-11-03, 6:05 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Marvin Lewis had the last laugh.

"Everybody thought we were kidding," Lewis said Monday. "But we got the right players at the right time."

Call it "Weekend at Marvin's," a $50 million, 50-hour extravaganza as Lewis hosted the Bengals' biggest free-agent haul ever in March.

How big was the haul? Try about $9 million in salary cap hits, according to reported figures When they decided not to match linebacker Takeo Spikes' offer sheet with Buffalo, it freed up the $4.8 million price of the transition tag, which is about all they have left now under the cap. And that's about how much they need to sign their 2003 draft picks.

Which means if they finish off negotiations with Falcons tight end Reggie Kelly, the Bengals may have to cut some people before training camp. At the moment, it appears Kelly is the only thing on the radar. A fullback is going to wait.

"We've gotten players before," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins, "but never this many so high-profile guys so soon."

Certainly not three defensive starters within 50 hours when the free-agent bidding is at its hottest and priciest. Fittingly, new middle linebacker Kevin Hardy (four years about $15.7 million), a Pro Bowler, was the centerpiece of Lewis' free agent unveiling Monday, which Lewis said marked the beginning of "the shaping of the football team under my direction."

There was also defensive tackle John Thornton (six years, $22.5 million), a versatile guy who has been a key player for a No. 1 defense, and cornerback Tory James (four years, $14. 4 million), a Super Bowl corner who now leads all Bengals' corners with 19 career interceptions.

But Hardy had the bulls eye.

Hardy may wear Takeo Spikes' No. 51, but he is the anti-Spikes. While Spikes spurned Lewis' new regime in search of the Pro Bowl and playoffs in Buffalo (on Monday he said, "it's the little things that get you beat"), Hardy brings Pro Bowls and two AFC championship game appearances to Lewis' rebuilding effort in Cincinnati.

"New stadium, new coaching staff, new players, it's a symbol of change, and for the better," Hardy said. "That's something I wanted to be a part of."

Remember when free agents just used Cincinnati as a place to get a meal, make a connection, and drive up the price? But Hardy, Thornton, and James were sought by other clubs and were at the top of their positions and stopped in Cincinnati when Lewis used his powers of persuasion.

"No. 1, I liked the aggressiveness with some of the guys they were bringing in," Hardy said. "I'm a fan of the game. I know what Tory James has done out in Oakland.

We've played in the division (with Thornton). And they have a base already here in Cincinnati. Look at Justin Smith and some of the things he can do off the edge. Look at the athleticism of Brian Simmons."

Spikes didn't want to look at any of it. He said Monday that he was discouraged by the Bengals' initial offer of a multi-year deal before the season started, and when his people also offered what management apparently thought was an equally discouraging offer, both decided to take their chances.

"I felt like they wanted me back," Spikes said, "but they wanted my services for free."

With depth problems on the front line and the secondary swimming, the Bengals were clearly hesitant about dumping more big money into another inside backer after giving middle linebacker Brian Simmons nearly $4 million per year. Spikes was just as clearly hesitant about coming back before and after the hiring of Lewis.

"I couldn't stand the constant losing. It was turning me into a different person," Spikes said. "My time wasn't wasted in Cincinnati. I felt like I grew as a player and as a person. The best memories I have, besides the camaraderie with my teammates, are the fans. Great memories."

Hardy thinks he can help make great memories in Cincinnati after playing the Bengals twice a year for the Jaguars for six seasons. He admits that after playing in a below-zero-wind-chill-factor game in the first year of Paul Brown Stadium (Dec. 17, 2000), he would have thought you were "'crazy," if you told him he would sign as a Bengal in two years.

"This is a new era for me and a new era for this football team," Hardy said.

They lost their spiritual leader in Spikes, but Hardy prides himself on emotion. He may lead by example more than words, but he will lead. When defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier urged Hardy to call James during negotiations, Hardy did, and James said it's one of the reasons he signed.

"I like to play with intensity, a lot of emotion," Hardy said. "I like for the guys around me to play with the same type of emotion. I'm not the all-out in your face guy. I'm not going to grab you by the facemask, or be grabbing him and (calling him out). I like to lead by example. If I know somebody isn't playing up to their (potential) to help this football team, I will certainly say something."

Like Spikes, Hardy is an outgoing guy. He walked into the locker room Monday, saw linebacker Brian Simmons at his locker, and immediately stretched out his hand with a smile, smacked the adjacent locker with Spikes' nameplate and number, and said, "I might as well move in here, huh?"

"Where ever they want to put me," Hardy said, but that's right where equipment manager Rob Recker is going to put him.

Spikes loves Simmons, but he felt he had to break up their tag team. Simmons shrugged at his locker.

"I'd rather talk about the three players we did get," Simmons. "They're good players and hopefully they're going to help us win some games."

Lewis didn't say it, but it was pretty obvious when they didn't put the $5.6 million franchise tag on Spikes and went with the $4.8 million transition tag. They wanted the extra $800,000 to get players and they wanted the flexibility to take the tag off at any point to get more players. What Lewis also seemed to be saying is that losing players off a 2-14 team isn't going to keep him up nights.

On Monday, everyone seemed happy. Spikes is even headed to a reunion with former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau, now the Bills' assistant head coach.

"It's beautiful. It's like I never left," said Spikes, who has always had LeBeau as either a head coach or defensive coordinator. "The thing he brings is knowledge and he does it in a way he won't step on anyone's toes."

Spikes said he has yet to speak to LeBeau about their opportunity with the Bills, but LeBeau told the Associated Press, ``He's a very instinctive player. He has a unique ability to diagnose and get to the ball. And he's going to make tackles in any scheme."

Just call it people agreeing to disagree. Obviously, Lewis felt it was best for Spikes to take his displeasure with him. Now, Lewis' No. 51 is here.

"When you bring in a Marvin Lewis and it's his first opportunity to be a head coach, that's a fresh start for him," Hardy said. "And he's had tremendous success. The coaching staff that's assembled believes, so it's a fresh start for them. It sounds like a cliché, but it's nowhere but up from here. That's why you call it a fresh start."

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