Posted: 7:50 p.m.
Jeff FitzGerald, the high-octane Bengals linebackers coach, is used to driving stock cars instead of carts. He's also used to driving Pro Bowlers instead of potential. But he just won in one and he thinks he can win in the other.
FitzGerald teamed with pro driver Brad Jaeger of Doran Racing and two others Friday to win the hour-long Shayne Graham Celebrity Raceoff on the cart track at Batavia, Ohio's Motorsports Country Club of Cincinnati. Before edging Frostee Rucker's Premier Business Management team and Graham's own Mercy Health Partners cart, FitzGerald took a break thinking about the gas he'd begin to apply next Friday during the first Bengals practice of the season.
"This is a good group and I've had some good groups," said FitzGerald, who sent all four of his starting Ravens linebackers to the Pro Bowl in 2006. "Obviously, I don't know enough about the young guys. They haven't done enough. But I like the versatility. They've got a chance to be as versatile as some of those other groups."
FitzGerald admitted that if you told him when he took the job in Cincinnati in 2008 that he would end up with Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga out of the draft, "I would find it hard to believe." Throw in an 11-year veteran in the middle in Dhani Jones "who is the senior, who gets everyone lined up, and it's a great mix," FitzGerald said. "As a personal note, I'm excited for our team. I think we're a lot better on offense and defense and it's just not happy talk."
The player that really caught FitzGerald's eye this spring, Rashad Jeanty, is about to engage in a steel cage match with Maualuga for the SAM spot. Although he was already impressed with Jeanty's hard-nosed approach last year, FitzGerald says Jeanty "is a different guy. He's lost weight. He's stronger. He's turned over a new leaf."
Even if Maualuga can't fend off the four-year veteran in training camp, he still figures to get plenty of snaps. As does Brandon Johnson, the backup to Rivers at WILL.
"I'm sure we're going to be able to find ways to use most of the guys in some form or fashion," FitzGerald said. "We can change up our packages. We've got plenty of people to confuse them with different guys. If we have the people to do that, it's not right not to do that. Spread the wealth. There's no charity going on. We've got good guys and if they're standing on the sidelines when the first group is out there, that's a good problem to have."
One of the main roster questions is how do the Bengals count rookie defensive end Michael Johnson? As a defensive lineman or linebacker? The 6-7, 265-pound Johnson got his very big feet wet at SAM this spring and FitzGerald thinks he was good enough to show "he can be spot help for us."
Now, FitzGerald isn't saying Johnson is the next Adalius Thomas, FitzGerald's Pro Bowler who played in every position group on defense. But that's the name that comes up when FitzGerald is asked to compare Johnson's specs and style to a guy he's had.
"I've got one in mind but (Johnson) is not there yet," he said. "He's got some ability along the lines of Adalius Thomas. He's got that capability of doing a lot of different things. Adalius played all over, even safety. We'd put him out there and he'd beat up the guy in Cover 2."
FitzGerald was one of the celebrities recruited by Graham for an event he hoped raised anywhere between $50-70,000 for his foundation with $5,000 per the 10 carts. It was an obvious call. FitzGerald is a race-car enthusiast who drove stocks this past winter and spring at Daytona, Bristol and Darlington as a member of the Richard Petty Experience.
"We gave guests a ride before the races, but it was a fast ride," said FitzGerald, who had it at 180 miles per hour at Daytona.
That wasn't quite nearly the speed Friday in Batavia. But FitzGerald was still eying the trophy before the race.
"This is playing," he said. "But I always want to win."
THEMED RACE: Also in attendance Friday were Graham's fellow special-teamers, coach Darrin Simmons, long-snapper Brad St. Louis, and rookie punter Kevin Huber. And Simmons, like FitzGerald, usually reticent when it comes to the future, couldn't hide his enthusiasm about the upcoming season.
"I hate to make any predictions any time, but I felt about as good coming out of OTAs this year as I have in a long time," Simmons said. "Even in the kicking game I feel like we're as far a long as we've been in several years. Guys understand exactly what we're doing after a couple of years. We can only get so many reps and there are a lot of good guys that have yet to get out there."
Simmons buys the argument that everyone seems to be on a one-year deal. This is the last salary capped year. The Bengals have had three straight seasons where the record has been worse than the year before. The two staples of his field-goal operation, Graham and St. Louis, have one year left on their deals.
"I agree with that. That's how you have to play all the time. You've got to always act like this is the last year for everything," he said. "This is obviously a huge year for this franchise, for this team. It's time to go."
GRAHAM LOOKS AHEAD: Graham, the most accurate Bengals kicker of all time at 87 percent, heads into this season at 85.6 percent for his career and a spot high on the all-time list. But it's always been that way since he hit his 100th field goal in '06. So he's not looking at the numbers.
"If I look at that, I start worrying too much about makes and misses; you make the kicks you have," he said. "I've done well in my career, but there have been kicks I felt I should made that I missed and I look forward to the chances to make up for those."
There are two, of course. The last-play 39-yarder on the last snap of the '06 season that would have beat the Steelers and put the Bengals in the playoffs. And the OT 47-yarder this year against the Eagles that would have avoided a tie.
"I really wanted to make them, obviously, but I didn't adjust to the conditions; I didn't perform my best to make those kicks," Graham said. "I've made those kicks in the past and I know I'll continue to make them in the future. It's just right now everyone remembers the last thing that happens. A lot of people claim the reason we missed the playoffs was because of the Pittsburgh kick. I was just as upset as anyone else was.
"You don't give up on somebody if they drop a wide-open touchdown pass. Or you don't give up on somebody if they overthrow someone. Or miss a tackle. I'm not going to give up on myself for missing that kick. Because I came back at a high percentage after that. They weren't all game-winning kicks, but they had a say in the outcome of the games."
Graham is saying all the right things after he couldn't reach a long-term deal with the club earlier this month and will play this year for the franchise tender of $2.5 million. Asked if the magic number was $3 million per year. Graham said, "whatever the market price was it wasn't reached or negotiated, but I'm ready for my team to have a great year and help as much as I can. I love the guys in the locker room and I want to do well for them as well as for me."
Asked about the Bengals franchising him again next year, which would be about $3 million for 2010, Graham said, "OK. Honestly, I'm not going to argue with the money I'm making. It's more money than I've ever made in one year, so I'm happy about it. It's just nice to have long-time security and know you're getting the value."