4-25-02, 5:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
With one move Thursday, tight end went from the Bengals' most experienced position to the least when they released Tony McGee, their active leader with 136 games and 134 starts.
"You could see the writing on the wall," said McGee, who never played on a winning team here in nine seasons. "My one regret is that we didn't accomplish what we wanted to as a team and I didn't get a chance to do some more things personally. But they gave me a shot for nine years and I think they're headed in the right direction. I hope they do great."
They will have to be great with Sean Brewer and Matt Schobel, the club's last two third-round draft picks who are now the team's top two tight ends with Brewer designated the starter. Neither have played in a NFL game, but they won't be the only rookies under the microscope at next weekend's minicamp.
Second-round pick Lamont Thompson of Washington State figures to lead a camp competition at free safety with sixth-rounder Marquand Manuel, veteran Darryl Williams, and converted cornerback Mark Roman. Starting free safety Cory Hall moves into a battle with JoJuan Armour at strong safety, opening up the possibility Thompson heads into minicamp as the starting free safety. But May depth charts have traditionally meant nothing.
The classy, reliable McGee, seventh on the Bengals' all-time receptions list with 299, may be gone, but not forgotten. Bengals President Mike Brown called him, "more than a good player, but a good person to have on a team and we like him a lot."
So does Cowboys offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet, who hasn't forgotten. Coslet said Thursday from Dallas that his club wants to talk to
McGee about signing. Coslet coached McGee in Cincinnati for seven years as the Bengals offensive coordinator and head coach. Plus, Cowboys offensive line coach Frank Verducci coached McGee the past three seasons as the Bengals tight ends coach.
Thanks in part to a revolving door at quarterback, McGee never again approached his career-best 55 catches in 1995. He sprained his right knee on Dec. 2 last year and finished the season with a career low 14 catches.
"Tony is a great guy and he knows our offense," Coslet said. "I think you can chalk up the quarterback thing as a reason. But you can't forget about what a good blocker he is. He was a strong factor in Corey Dillon's development."
Ironically, McGee turned 31 a couple of hours after the Bengals made the move that sealed his fate, selecting Schobel out of TCU in the third round late Saturday night.
More irony? Apparently the Cowboys were one of the teams looking to trade up with Carolina to get Schobel in the third round, but the Panthers did the deal with the Bengals. Coslet didn't say that, but he did say he likes Schobel.
"He runs good routes. He's a big kid with good hands and I think he'll be a good blocker," Coslet said. "I thought he was a good pick at that spot."
Brewer, the third-round pick from San Jose State in 2001 who missed all but a week of training camp with a groin injury, is pumped up to be the man. At 6-4, 260 pounds, he says he has been working with a personal trainer in Irvine, Calif., five days a week.
"I think they saw me as a guy who was big enough to block, but not that big that I couldn't catch," Brewer said. "I think they see me as doing both. I think I can do both. It's going to be hard this year because last year I had Tony and Marco (Battaglia) to go to as veterans. I won't have that this year."
Brewer, who was injured a few days before last year's Aug. 4 pre-season opener, never put on pads again and spent the season on injured reserve. He says he could have been back about the second or third week of the season, but the Bengals were deep into cutting the roster at that point.
It's going to be an all rookie affair. John Garrett, heading into his ninth season as a NFL offensive coach, is coaching tight ends for the first time. Even though Brewer hasn't been through a training camp, Garret likes some things.
"He knows the offense. He stayed in there with it mentally, which was impressive," Garrett said. "He went to all the meetings, was at all the practices, so he's got a leg up on some things."
But Garrett is going to have to get Brewer and Schobel as many snaps as possible. Brewer caught 56 passes in 31 games for San Jose, but Schobel had only 27 in the last two years after he made the move from quarterback.
That will cut down on H-Back Nick Williams' experiment as a pure tight end, although they will still probably try it in some form. Williams is still projected as "move," tight end, putting long snapper Brad St. Louis and Kirk McMullen (whose two starts make him the only tight end on the roster with a NFL start) look to be on the bubble.
"It's time to get some new legs at tight end," Brown said. "They're young, but they also have a lot of ability. Tony came in as a rookie and he had a long, good career for us."
After the Bengals chose not to re-sign 32-year-old Rodney Holman after the 1992 season, they drafted McGee out of Michigan in the second round of the 1993 draft. He started Opening Day as well as 117 straight before back-to-back season-ending injuries in 2000 and 2001.
But Holman, now the Bengals assistant strength coach, had three seasons, 47 catches, and three playoff berths left when he went to the Lions. After off-season arthroscopic knee surgery, McGee thinks he also has some juice left.
"I was out running routes yesterday for the first time and I was impressed," McGee said. "I'm going to sit back for a couple of days and see what happens. I know there are teams interested in me, but I don't want to say who they are."
Holman also thinks McGee has something left.
"It depends what the team is going to ask him to do," said Holman, generally regarded as the franchise's best tight end who was sent packing after 11 seasons and 318 catches. "You miss the guys, the people, but you have to look at it as a positive. Something happens for you some place else."
Holman had Dan Ross and M.L. Harris break him in, but McGee really didn't have a savvy veteran to help him along.
"I was lucky in that I had a great tight ends coach in Mike Pope when I was a rookie," McGee said. "Another one of my regrets is that I wasn't able to have a guy like Pope coach me my entire career. John will do a good job with these young guys. John is a good guy, he works hard and I just think good things happen to people like that."
The Bengals save $1.3 million under the salary cap with the move, which was to be McGee's salary in this, the final year of his contract. But they will eat the final $500,000 porton of his $2 million bonus.
The Bengals run a number of different budgets with different scenarios and cutting McGee was no doubt one of them, so it won't be seen as a windfall. But it does give them some cap room to pursue Broncos veteran backup Gus Frerotte and start thinking about extending linebackers Takeo Sikes and Brian Simmons.