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Backstage pass

9-22-02, 12:25 p.m.


ATLANTA _ If the Bengals are defensive about being Rodney Dangerfield's team, maybe ESPN is just as defensive about being Sunday night and not Monday night.

"This," Bengals defensive captain Takeo Spikes told the ESPN crew in Saturday's production meeting, " is the next best thing to Monday Night Football."


"Hey, watch that Monday Night stuff," said analyst Joe Theismann.

Maybe he was joking, maybe not, but the Sunday night gang is every bit as formidable and more stable than Monday Night's Drive-Thru booth.

And, as important in shaping national perception. And maybe more important when it comes to NFL hard core. When Spikes got word from Bengals public relations director Jack Brennan and assistant P.J. Combs that ESPN wanted him for the production meeting, he called a barber to his hotel room and then showed up in his GQ getup he wore on the plane.

How long has it been from the national scene? Before he started, Theismann just wanted to make sure it was pronounced "tuh-KEE-oh."

Even if players and coaches fear their tongue lashings, Theismann and Paul Maguire are the true tell-it-like-it-is heirs of Howard Cosell.

Unassuming, unselfish Mike Patrick is the extremely competent play-by-play man who makes three-in-a-booth as roomy as a wheat field, but not as dry.

And, having the research-drenched Suzy Kolber on the sidelines as opposed to some of the Monday Night talent that has been there before this season is like having Adlai Stevenson on the tube instead of the Road Runner.

But it's also a crew that hasn't seen the Bengals in four seasons and they had a lot of catching up to do to get beyond the punch lines springing from their 16-46 record since the Sunday night they lost to the Ravens in 1998.

"Could you please do me one thing?" asked Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon as he got up to leave his session. "Please put in a plug for my offensive line. They're one of the big reasons for my success and they never get the pub. Please take care of them for me."

Which shows you how the national stage makes the usually hum-drum weekly production network meeting that much more intense. When the Bengals go on the road, Brennan and Combs have

the "production meeting," routine down to the precision of a presidential motorcade. They have beefed up their efforts this week by taking along PR intern Nick Niehaus. When the Bengals' plane touched down at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Brennan got on the cell phone to the crew waiting at the hotel and let them know where they were. Then he phoned again when they get off a downtown Atlanta exit to let them know he'd whisk Dillon to them even before he checks into his room.

The voice on the cell phone seemingly seconds ago, producer Jay Rothman, shook their hands as they arrived, and motioned to a chair.

Dillon sat between Theismann and Maguire. Next to the analysts sat Rothman and director Chip Dean. In the middle were Kolber and Patrick. All took notes in a session Rothman figures accounts for five percent of their research during the week.

"But it may be the most important five percent," Patrick said.

All were fascinated with Dillon's decision to stay in Cincinnati and they kind of looked at him as Tom Hanks shipwrecked on the island. They wanted to know why and he told them he thinks the team can turn it around quickly a la the Patriots and Rams and that he likes many of his teammates.

What seemed to be lost is that Dillon isn't the only major player who has decided to sign up long term. Right tackle Willie Anderson did it before and middle linebacker Brian Simmons did it after, but Dillon is the national face of a team that hasn't been seen.

Patrick keeps a large, fold-out depth chart on each team the crew covers, complete with notes, news, and anecdotes ringing the names of the players. Before each game, he pulls out his most recent depth chart from that team's last Sunday night game and transfers the pertinent information to his current chart.

Of course, his chart from '98 for the Bengals is about as fresh as a state paper from the Harding Administration, but Patrick tried to find shreds.

"There's no substitute for doing a team year in and year out," Patrick said. "It's much more difficult when you don't see a team for four years. You can't carry something over into the broadcast that you might have found out from doing a game two years ago. What I don't like about that is there might have been a feature story on a guy about doing something great for a charity a year or two ago and you didn't see it. You miss out on the human stuff and that's the kind of stuff I like to bring out."

Along with watching tape, Theismann spent his week talking to the Bengals' coordinators, Mark Duffner on defense and Bob Bratkowski on offense. If it sounds like Theismann talks to anyone in the league, it's because he can. Suddenly, he has been around longer than your uncle. Those are two typical easy calls for him. He knows Duffner from the coach's Maryland days, and he knows Bratkowski from doing Seattle games.

Everyone went over the sports sections in Cincinnati and Atlanta from the past week. But while the talent studied the Xs and Os and the storylines during the week, Rothman and Dean ripped out parts of the show from the previous weeks and have re-tooled various stages of the production now that it is Week Three.

"Early in the game we had just talked about a star," Dean said. "This week we're going to do more offense vs. defense and have more of an overview."

After Dillon, Brennan and Combs paraded through head coach Dick LeBeau, quarterback Gus Frerotte, defensive end Justin Smith and Spikes. The developing storylines for the game revolved around the quarterbacks. How do the Bengals stop Michael Vick and how far will LeBeau go with Frerotte after threatening to make a change? The main sub-plot appeared to be, how do Dillon and Spikes stay sane playing for a loser?

"It's a chance for us to hear from them themselves what beat writers and everyone else has been saying about them," Rothman said.

Dean: "The best stuff we get is from the kids."

Patrick's eyes raised on only one item in the 90-minute session.

"From what I read, Dick was much more closer to a quarterback change than he indicated to us," Patrick said. "Maybe he softened because he already made the decision. But nothing was all that surprising."

After talking to Frerotte, a fellow former Redskins quarterback he got to know well in Washington, Theismann realized how even LeBeau had run the training camp quarterback derby and how it limited Frerotte's snaps.

"It probably explains why this passing game is going to be better in week eight than week three," Theismann said. "It also makes me think now more than ever that this organization has to make a decision on a quarterback and stick with him."

Theismann thinks Frerotte can be the guy. His questions to him were centered around his belief that Frerotte is a good fit in Cincinnati because the Bengals have been looking for a quarterback for years and Frerotte has been looking for a team that believes in him for about the same time.

Kolber is known for archiving quotes and asking the player or coach about it. When Theismann and Maguire turned to her for the obligatory Frerotte one-liner, she asked about last Monday's statement that he'd be out there if he had no hands or feet.

"I was asked about my thumb," Frerotte said. "I just meant I was fine and that I'm not going to be the one to take myself out."

Patrick can relate to stories like that. A big reason he's so easy to listen to is because he talks to you like he's talking over your hedge in the backyard. It's probably why he can't hide his admiration for the Main Street Dillon and Spikes.

"I've always admired Dillon and Spikes. They don't give up. They play hard no matter what," Patrick said. "I love competitors. Guys that just keep playing. They've been playing against a stacked deck since they came into the league. But when things don't go well, you don't see them showing up teammates or taking plays off. Some guys talk like that, but they don't back it up. These guys back it up."

One of the sub-plots is how Dillon survives with defenses putting eight and nine men in the box, and Dean has adjusted his game plan with his cameras.

"Because two of the impact players are near the line of scrimmage, Vick and Dillon, we discussed putting our super slow mo hand-held (cameras), which are normally down field for receptions, closer to the line to see if we can get more angles and more super slow mo of Vick's movement, Dillon's movement. That's the only slight difference," Dean said.

Rothman is unfazed he's got two 0-2 teams. They've done their homework, they've got two exciting players, and a willing audience.

"The ESPN audience is more of a football audience. They want to see the game." Of course, Rothman has what he calls his "blowout material," if one team gets the upper hand, which is "big-picture stuff that will keep the football fan interested."

That's one of the other sub-plots. The Bengals want to get the nation interested in them.

Spikes and Maguire, both candid and tough, got into some pretty good jousts about it. Which is both of their styles and they seemed to enjoy other.

Spikes said he thinks the Bengals' identity is that they are a team "that is close," and Maguire said pretty much they better be because everyone is so down on them.

"I'm going to make you a Bengals' fan," said a smiling Spikes said as he shook hands to leave. "I'm going to send you some Bengals' T-Shirts."

He hopes there is a national need after they take their show on ESPN's show.

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