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Back to the future?

4-18-02, 9:40 p.m.


As the Bengals grapple in their draft meetings this week with names like Joey Harrington and Phillip Buchanon, there are deeper lines drawn than offense and defense.

Harrington, the Oregon quarterback who would wait behind Jon Kitna and Akili Smith, represents the future for a franchise that has unsuccessfully looked to the future for the last dozen years.

Buchanon, the Miami of Florida cornerback, would instantly race into the present day and immediately give the Bengals a 4.3 40-yard-dash impact. He would potentially help push a fledgling contender over the top and inject the locker room with a future-is-now jolt.

If you are Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau and turn 65 the day after Opening Day in a season generally thought to be the last year of your contract, you would think you might come down on the side of the present even though your boss is an avowed long-term guy.

"It's never an easy decision," said Bengals President Mike Brown Thursday. "I tend to come down on the one who will do the most good over the longest period of time. There will be some guys who play positions that will come on sooner and some will come on later."

After their last full-fledged draft meeting Thursday, officials and coaches emerged from the Paul Brown Stadium draft room tight-lipped about what they will do in Saturday's first round with the 10th pick. Harrington, Buchanon, Wisconsin defensive end Wendell Bryant and Miami of Florida tight end Jeremy Shockey are no doubt being debated with the Harrington pick figuring to get the most internal debate.

And the question isn't if the defensive coaches would lobby for Oklahoma safety Roy Williams if he ended up sitting there with his game-breaking abilities, but which piece of furniture would they stand on?

As a player and coach in the NFL for 44 years, LeBeau knows as well as anybody that coaches have to win and management has to plan.

But since LeBeau is a student of history, he also knows the importance of the future and he won't turn up his nose at Harrington.

"I think that sometimes they are at cross purposes, particularly an older coach who may not have that many more years to coach," said LeBeau with a slight smile. "But I think management wants to win and they want to win right away also. The person in charge of the long-range prognosis of a franchise of any kind, they have to think about the situation currently, the situation a year from now, two years from now, three years from now. Sometimes it may be hard to dovetail those in the short range, but I don't think there's a problem here.

"I think to perpetuate this," said LeBeau of the franchise, "you have to

think long range. Anybody in my position who can't do that I think is going be a little short sighted. Hopefully, there'll be a player available to satisfy both needs."

The one guy who doesn't fit both needs is Harrington, or any other quarterback the Bengals take this weekend to go into training camp as the No. 3. He won't be ready for at least another year and there is a better than even chance he'll never be ready. Since 1990, a quarterback taken in the Top Ten fails three out of four times and the Bengals have been the victims 1.5 times with the jury still out on Smith.

But Brown insisted Thursday he isn't gun shy about taking another quarterback three years after taking Smith and 10 years after taking David Klingler.

"If you think a good talent is there, you should consider it strongly because that's the key position in the NFL," Brown said. "If you can find him, then you're in good shape for a long period of time. It's a high risk. About half or more don't pan out."

LeBeau remembers when Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason did pan out and were the franchise's Opening Day quarterback in 21 of the first 25 years.

"I would certainly want to talk about him at length," LeBeau said of Harrington. "I think he's an excellent player; he's at a position that is in my mind always a position of need in this league and that is quarterback ."

"We've talked about a long range factor. If you could develop a quarterback – Harrington or whatever – and he became a top-ranked quarterback, then you would enjoy the residual benefits of having one of the top quarterbacks for ten years in the National Football League," LeBeau said. "We'd all jump on that. There is an unknown. We don't know who that is or if that will ever happen. But it certainly is worth the investment of a year or two to see if he's going to become that."

That said, LeBeau, a former Pro Bowl cornerback, is big fan of Buchanon's speed and return ability. He says Shockey's precise route running is unique for a big man who plays like a wide receiver, and he likes Bryant's rare ability to cover 40 yards with 305 pounds in 4.75 seconds.

But LeBeau saved his most effusive praise for the Oklahoma Williams by invoking a sacred Pro Bowl name from the past.

"He's David Fulcher with a little more speed. He has great instincts. Fulcher was one of the most instinctive players that I ever coached and this kid exhibits those traits," LeBeau said. "He sees things, he's got great range, he can blitz very well, he's very much at home three yards from the line of scrimmage. To see him drop into space, you had to go to (the) Indianapolis combine because he was so valuable to Oklahoma that they kept him around the line of scrimmage a lot. But watching him in Indianapolis, I think that he has great range, adequate ball skills for a man his size, certainly as good as David's were, and as I recall, we were a pretty good defense with Fulcher hanging around the ball."

At some point, they will have to get a safety and probably two simply because of the lack of numbers. It's the same at tight end. A kicker will also be discussed. Those spots alone could take up round two to the final at round seven. What that means for LeBeau and the future is anyone's guess. And he's not guessing.

"I think my odds depend on how successful we are, and we're going to be successful, and I'm going to approach it that way," said LeBeau of staying on the job. "I don't give the other side of the coin any consideration. It's certainly a bridge we could cross if it shows up, but we're going to be successful and that is the best job security in the league. We're going to do that."

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