7-23-01, 3:10 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Lorenzo Neal has already been part of one special teams miracle in the NFL.
Now as the Bengals' special teams captain in everything but name only, Neal is intent on performing the second miraculous feat of his career.
Which is getting his teammates on one of the league's more suspect units to realize punts and kickoffs are big plays instead of necessary evils.
"It's a mentality," Neal said Monday after the Bengals installed their kick-off return scheme in the morning session here at Georgetown College. "It's got to be a passion. It can't be something you do just because you have to do it."
The early whispers of this training camp say Neal, a nine-year veteran with his fourth club, is the Bengals' biggest off-season pickup by virtue of his presence. He's already doing what special teams coach Al Roberts calls "captain things." Even though the vote isn't until the week before the regular-season opener.
Huddling up on the field. Conducting locker room bull sessions. Speaking in meetings. With the emphasis on the importance of each special snap.
Plus, the beleaguered but bulldogged Roberts is also getting help from his head coach. For the first time in 15 years as a NFL special teams assistant, Roberts is watching the head man come into his room and open several of the teams meetings. LeBeau spells out what he wants from whom before turning it over to Roberts.
"I think it's great. It helps spread the word and it has to come from the top,"
Roberts said. "The head man has more leverage and it's helpful when it's reinforced by Dick. Dick comes in there talking about getting an edge and turnovers and fumbles, things that need emphasis."
Roberts thinks he got a huge edge in Neal when the Bengals signed him the first week in May following Nick Williams' torn anterior cruciate knee ligament. He's already on three of the six special units (kick return, point-after, punt protection) and he could be on more once the roster gets whittled.
Last year, Neal lead Tennessee kick returner Derrick Mason into the Pro Bowl as the wedge blocker that plowed the way for Mason's AFC-best 27 yards per return.
And of course, the year before that he started "The Music City Miracle," with a handoff on Buffalo's last-second kickoff that turned into Kevin Dyson's stunning return in the playoff victory over the Bills.
The Bengals align differently than the Titans, so Neal will be back with another player in front of the returner, which could be incumbent Tremain Mack, running back Curtis Keaton, and a host of others.
"The idea is the same. To score," Neal said. "We're working on a different bunch of wedges. We'll find the right combination."
The Bengals certainly haven't had it the past few years. This past year they were .2 yards away from being last in the NFL in kick returns, they were in the bottom six for punt returns, and they were last in field-goal percentage. They year before that they had four punts deflected and were near the bottom yielding field position on kickoffs.
"We had a lot of young guys out there that really didn't know exactly how serious it can be in a game," said linebacker Adrian Ross. "Now those young guys have been here three, four years like Canute (Curtis) and myself. And you've got a guy like (Neal). You can see it in his eyes that he's got the want-to. He wants to make plays."
Now they have that Eric Bieniemy-type guy who kept special teams together from 1995-98. Roberts says Bieniemy was the last veteran who gave him what Neal does on the field and in the locker room.
"I think we can be No. 1 in the league," Neal said of the unit. "Shoot for the stars and if you miss, you land on the moon. Why can't we do it here? We line up the same. We've got the same speed as everyone else. It comes down to believing and executing."
Who knows? Maybe that's what the Titans were saying before the Bills kicked off one miracle ago.