A trip back in time

6-19-03, 7:30 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The man his teammates used to call, "The VP," comes to the Bengals a heartbeat away from the Opening Day lineup in what is shaping up as a closeasthisrosterderby at safety.

But Rogers Beckett has at least one thing on Dick Cheney. He's actually rebounding from obscurity, rising from the Chargers' bench to the center of the mix in the Bengals' on-going search for a play-making safety. The real Veep may be nowhere to be found. But the Bengals' Veep has spent the past two days poring over his new constitution of a playbook as he takes a break from pursuing a master's degree on-line.

"He's an impressive guy on tape," says Louie Cioffi, the Bengals assistant secondary coach. "He has tremendous straight line speed, really good range. He's got good hands and he's got good anticipation. You know the old saying? Better late than never? We're glad we've got him."

And Beckett is glad he's here after looking at a new Cincinnati scheme he feels is more aggressive than the one San Diego employed in a 1-5 finish that cost them the playoffs this past season.

It was Cioffi who scouted Beckett for the Bengals back in the spring of 2000 on the Marshall campus. That was just about the time Beckett finished up his term as vice president of the student body while emerging as one of the top safeties in the draft despite showing up occasionally at meetings of the senate in the student union in his No. 42 practice uniform.

"You've got to be impressed when you talk to the guy," Cioffi says. "I worked him out down there and really felt like he was a top player after getting to spend some time with him. I know they keep the reports around, and that's why you do them as well as you can."

Cioffi put the second-round tag on him, which the Chargers validated when they selected Beckett with the 43rd pick in the draft. But the Bengals sought a cornerback at No. 34 in LSU's Mark Roman and, oddly enough, Roman is now the incumbent at one of the safety spots Beckett eyes.

Cioffi disputes the notion that the claiming of Beckett off waivers indicates the Bengals are dissatisfied with the Roman experiment and another second-round pick, 2002's Lamont Thompson.

"You don't think we would have claimed Brett Favre if he was out there on the wire?" Cioffi asks. "This was just a case of getting a good player we knew something about. We're trying to upgrade at all positions across the board. We have to see how it plays out it training camp, but we think we've made things more competitive and that's what we're trying to do."

As for Beckett, he was minding his own business last season in helping the Chargers reach 4-0, 6-1, and 7-3 under new head coach Marty Schottenheimer in a skein that stretched to 26 straight starts. Then Beckett got benched for the last six games in a run San Diego won just once while giving up an average of nearly 27 points per game. He doesn't speculate why he got iced ("You never really know,"), but you only have to look as far Marvin Lewis' turnstile to realize that new head coaches just have to like what they like to make personnel moves.

"As the season started out, we were blitzing," Beckett says. "We got around the eighth, ninth, tenth game, and we started to ease away from it and got more conservative. A lot of Cover 2. It took away the aggressive edge that team was used to, so I think that hurt us in the long run."

The Bengals got first dibs on Beckett because they are first in the NFL's waiver claiming system, which corresponds to the draft order. But if it's not a match made in heaven, it's at least a match in the hard drive of the Bengals' defensive computer because he fits the size (6-3, 205 pounds), speed, and smarts the Bengals seek at the spot.

Plus the Bengals' scheme seems to have similar concepts that former Chargers defensive coordinator Joe Pascale used as Beckett flourished before Schottenheimer took over after the 2001 season. The regime didn't include Pascale, the Bengals' highly-regarded linebackers coach from the mid-90s.

"You want to make the offense adjust to you. You want to dictate what the offense would do," Beckett says. "Joe would throw out different formations and the offense would be thinking, 'What are they sending out there?' and the next thing you know they're sending out personnel (to match). It's chess game."

Beckett likes the orange and black pieces he sees so far.

"I haven't seen the blitz packages yet, but I know there must be a lot of them," Beckett says. "It allows you to make plays. I know I'm better in an aggressive scheme. As a safety, I feel like I need to be getting in on hits and getting in the flow of the game as opposed to just backpedaling. It's almost like playing catch. I like that first hit early, then the jitters go away and you start relaxing."

The safeties who are already here don't think they will be in the box at the line of scrimmage as much as they were last year. They also say there is less definition between a free safety and a strong safety than last year, but Cioffi thinks that's a league-wide trend.

"There's not a real big difference," Cioffi says. "Guys could end up playing the same technique in a different spot, but the bottom line is a NFL safety has to cover the tight end and running backs, make tackles in the box, and play centerfield. Offenses are so multiple now that the defenses have to be just as flexible."

Beckett, 26, is all about flexibility when it comes to his post-playing career. He has taken some on-line courses as well as courses at Marshall to put him halfway to his master's in public administration.

"I was thinking about getting into county administration," Beckett says. "But if all things go well with my career, I'll probably go into mentoring and counseling kids in high school. I think I'll be needed in that area. I feel like I'll be able to reach people directly."

The arrival of Beckett may or may not end up complicating the careers of some of the safeties already here. They'll keep four or five on the final 53-man roster, and with Roman, Thompson, Marquand Manuel, Kevin Kaesviharn, and JoJuan Armour as the returning veterans, things are a bit tight.

"Can't worry about it," Manuel says. "You can't be the front office, too. You have to worry about playing and let the front office be the front office. This is just the nature of the game."

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