2-12-03, 11:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
David Levine, the Miami agent who once represented the majority of the Bengals' nickel package, was on the phone the other day with Marvin Lewis' assistant when Jamie Janette told her boss she was talking to linebacker Steve Foley's agent.
"The next thing I heard was Marvin saying, 'Hey, let me talk to him,' and we had an extended conversation," Levine says of his first talk with Lewis. "He just pretty much said that in the end, coaches and agents want the same thing, and that's to put their players in the best possible situation to succeed."
Lewis' immense ability to cultivate relationships is just one of the reasons several NFL agents believe his hiring puts the Bengals on a map of free agency that now has to be re-drawn when prospects go on the road at the end of the month. It might not be Nirvana, but the trip tick is no longer pointed at Siberia.
"The Bengals have lost a lot of ties in the past," says the Denver-based Peter Schaffer. "But this is the kind of intangible that gives them the ability to get an edge. Free agency is all about breaking ties."
But the agents also agree with Lewis. The most important element that can turn a one-night stand into a corporate partnership is money. Yet throw the charismatic Lewis into a mix in which the Bengals have spent over the NFL salary cap the past two seasons and Schaffer says, "Players and agents won't be able overlook a trip to Cincinnati."
"Marvin is very organized, pragmatic, cerebral, and committed and lends the organization some credibility," says Angelo Wright, who represents some of the NFL's best defensive linemen. "But it still comes down to Mike (Brown) writing the check. I think they know they have to make a splash and I think Marvin and Mike will make two big hits and they haven't done that before."
The Oakland-based Wright's prediction comes from the pole opposite Levine. He's a guy coming off a tough, unsuccessful negotiation two years ago for defensive tackle Ted Washington. In which he ended up calling the Bengals' offer "like expecting caviar and ending up with Lake Erie smelt." But Wright, who also represents a former Lewis player in defensive tackle Sam Adams (expected to be cut by the Raiders) also can smell a major move.
"They did what they had to do in hiring Marvin," Wright says. "He's a professional guy who has respect among players. That will get guys in the door, but after that it pretty much depends on the offer and that hasn't been one of their strengths. I know I'm not going to go there anymore until I've got something firm on the table."
Lewis is already saying that he won't bring in a free agent for a visit unless it's serious and the sides are close. Levine thinks Brown's desire to give Lewis a more high-profile role heightens interest.
"Not only does he bring the reputation of a winner and is a well-known guy," Levine says, "but with the new perception or reality that he is running the show will now probably help."
Ralph Cindrich, the agent for former Bengals quarterback Jeff Blake, is from Lewis' native Pittsburgh, and he thinks his personality and credentials can attract players as well as be a springboard for a turnaround.
"Probably it's their image," says Cindrich of the biggest obstacles for the Bengals down through the years in free agency. "For anyone to deny a concern is misleading. It's out there with the writers, everybody. But it's a marketing effort and it can be done."
Cindrich points to how Dick Vermeil transformed the Rams ("Believe me, no one wanted any part of that team,") and he remembers how coaches and players simply dreaded the word, "Buffalo."
"This isn't any different than the Rams," Cindrich says. "No one wanted to go to Buffalo, but then everyone wanted to play for Marv Levy. The coach can make the difference. I don't know anyone who has met Marvin who doesn't like him."
Schaffer agrees. He represented cornerback Jeff Burris last season when he signed with Cincinnati and he represents a Bengals' free-agent now, safety Cory Hall. But he's also got a history with Lewis. He has talked to him over the years as the agent for two linebackers Lewis coached in Pittsburgh in Chad Brown and Jason Gildon.
"Cory got interested more when Marvin got hired," Schafffer says. "He's the kind of coach that if you're a defensive player, your market value goes up. He coaches players and the type of defense they want in the NFL now. Solid. Intelligent. Aggressive."
Levine thinks the Bengals get a bad rap in free agency because he feels they have given their own free agents sizeable deals to keep them off the market, as well as market deals for solid players from other teams such as his own Oliver Gibson and Bernard Whittington.
"There are things working against them like they work against the other Ohio team," Levine says. "Guys get 10 percent less off the top (because of state taxes) when they can go to a Florida team where there are no taxes. And the weather isn't the best in the country."
But Levine thinks Lewis is going to bring some fair skies to the franchise with the perpetual cloud.
"If financial issues are the same," Levine says, "Marvin should be able to tilt the pendulum more than past regimes."