4-24-04, 4:35 p.m. **
Updated:** 4-24-04, 6: 50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
With a wide smile Saturday, Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson compared the NFL Draft board to ice cream
"Everybody likes a different flavor. Chris Perry is our flavor," said Anderson of the Bengals' surprise first-round pick. "He's the guy that we feel can execute what we do offensively. That's important. You don't draft a guy and then try to fit him in."
When it came to running backs at No. 24, the Bengals were Baskin Robbins because they had a shot at every running back on the board. They could have gone for the flavor of the day in Oregon State running back Steven Jackson, the consensus top pick, or gone for the spice in speedy Kevin Jones of Florida State. They could have even gone for the surprise package in Ohio State cornerback Chris Gamble.
But head coach Marvin Lewis said the versatile Perry was not only the top back on their board, but the guy they targeted when the day began. Anderson compares Perry's grasp of the fundamentals to those of former four-time Pro Bowler James Brooks.
So when the Rams offered to swap their No. 26 pick and give the Bengals another fourth-round pick at No. 123, why not? They were still going to get a guy they wanted in Perry, Jones, or Gamble. The Bengals now have three fourth-round picks with the slots at Nos. 114 and 117 and eight in the first four rounds, matching the 1984 take in the first four rounds.
St. Louis took Jackson at No. 24, and the Bengals then took the 6-foot, 225-pound Perry in an effort to back up Rudi Johnson with a durable runner capable of carrying the ball for long stretches.
"I trust my eyes," said Anderson of why the Bengals had Perry No. 1. "We don't always believe what we read."
Johnson is clearly the Bengals' top back after becoming the first player in team history to have three 150-yard rushing games in the same year last season, but his future is unclear. He figures to be close to signing the one-year, $1.8 million tender for a restricted free agent, but his agent has yet to have discussions with the Bengals about a long-term deal.
"We're excited about Rudi and Rudi should be excited about being a Bengal," Lewis said. "Rudi doesn't have to beat himself up over the head. It has nothing to do with Rudi. It's just the best thing for our football team. Rudi knows this. He was apprised (that the Bengals could draft a back) a few times."
Although Perry may lack the size of Dillon, he is as fast and many regard him as the most complete big back in the draft with excellent hands as well as a track record of four-yard-per-carry reliability in the Big Ten. He averaged five yards per carry, had eight 100-yard days, and caught 44 balls this season for the Wolverines.
"He has the unique ability to make people miss," Anderson said. "In this league, that's what separates the good from the great. I'm not putting Chris in the great category, I'm just saying he has that unique ability to make people miss."
Perry was versatile enough to set a school-record 51 carries against Michigan State and catch 11 balls for 122 yards when Michigan fell behind to Minnesota. Perry beat Ohio State with more than 200 total yards, 154 of them rushing.
The Bengals favorably stacked up Perry against Gamble, who went five picks later to Carolina. While Perry found a couple of ways to beat the Buckeyes, Gamble got beat for two touchdowns in the loss to Michigan. Then, Gamble ran slow in workouts, while Perry's productivity and reliability kept showing up on tape.
"I feel that's the thing that separates me," Perry said. "I think I can do a lot of things. I can catch the ball."
Perry, who spent the day with 10 family members and friends at an Ann Arbor hotel and alternating watching the draft and playing video games, thought he was going to the Bengals at No. 24 when Anderson called the first time. But he only said the Bengals were considering it.
"Then he hung up and they made the trade, so when he called again, I didn't get too excited," Perry said. "The draft is, you never know. I just wanted to see it on TV, and then when Lewis came on the phone, I saw it. I'm happy."
Perry said he doesn't know much about Cincinnati, but he has seen the Johnson highlights and is impressed: "I'm someone who is going to compete and try to win."
Perry has that versatility in the passing game that some felt Dillon never gave the Bengals.
After rushing for 495 yards as a sophomore, Perry served notice with a 1,110-yard junior season with 14 touchdowns, and his 108 receiving yards against Florida helped him earn the MVP of the Outback Bowl. He went for 1,674 yards and 18 touchdowns on 338 carries this year on his way to the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top back.
Ironically, Perry and Johnson both had great prep careers in Virginia. Johnson set records at Thomas Dale in Ettrick, Va., while Perry led Fork Union Military Academy to the state title his senior year after rolling up 4,678 yards and 71 touchdowns in his career.
Perry said he "hated," the military life at Fork Union after growing up in North Carolina. But he said he does have discipline, which is one of the things his mother sought.
"I felt like Fork Union didn't have a realistic view on life," Perry said. "They got caught up in the military aspect of it a little bit too much. I'm not too fond of Fork Union. Where I was in school my mother felt the people in my community didn't have my best interests. They just wanted me because of my football talent. She decided to send me somewhere where academics was as important as sports."
The Bengals have two veteran running backs in Kenny Watson and Skip Hicks that they think can be good spot players. Watson rushed for 534 yards in 2002 as a backup in Washington, and Hicks is having a good season in NFL Europe.
But the Bengals have never been shy about having enough big, bell-cow running backs. After Ickey Woods finished off his Rookie of the Year season in 1988, the Bengals took UCLA running back Eric Ball with their first pick in the '89 draft and Harold Green of South Carolina in the second round of 1990. Two years after the Bengals took Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter with the No. 1 overall pick in 1995, the Bengals took Dillon in the second round.
"You can never have enough," said Anderson, who had a hand in drafting them all. "There's a chance during the season maybe something will happen. Knock on wood it doesn't happen. If you have a quality football player right there it makes it a lot easier. All they have to do is step up and step in. The same thing that happened to Rudi last year."