BY GEOFF HOBSON
MOBILE, Ala. _ As Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau conducts more interviews than Larry King here at the Senior Bowl, LeBeau and club president Mike Brown realize the search for an offensive coordinator centers on who can do what for franchise quarterback Akili Smith.
Which is why LeBeau talked Tuesday night to the man who put enough pieces of shattered quarterback Kordell Stewart together in the last half of this season in former Steelers offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride.
And Smith is why they talked a few weeks ago to Peyton Manning's guru, Colts quarterbacks coach Bruce Arians.
"We want someone who can work with Akili and to devise a system he can operate that works for him better than what we were doing," Brown said.
Or, as Arians said, "You have to find out if he can do it or can't do it."
Brown and LeBeau also indicated Tuesday that the Bengals are looking at coaches who can use three- and four-receiver sets to help take heat off Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon.
Which is why they talked with Steelers receivers coach Bob Bratkowski Monday night, have scheduled an interview with recently fired Lions receivers coach Jerry Sullivan for Wednesday, and are trying to find time to talk to former Redskins quarterbacks coach Rich Olson.
Arians and Olson are also in the hunt in Arizona, but Cardinals head coach Dave McGinnes said Tuesday he won't make a call until late this week or early next week.
That matches LeBeau's timetable because he expects to wrap up interviews Friday when he talks to former Browns head coach Chris Palmer in Cincinnati. But Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy said he also wants to talk to Palmer and word is good friend Dick Jauron with the Bears wants to talk to Palmer next week.
The theory is that spreading the field with at least three receivers forces the defense to use a defensive back on the perimeter instead of a linebacker (the dreaded eighth man in the box that haunted Dillon all season) near the line of scrimmage.
The Bengals usually go three wides mainly on third down with Dillon some times out of the game. Their first and second down diet is mainly double tight ends, or a lead fullback in front of Dillon.
LeBeau said he's not looking to make wholesale changes to the NFL's third best running game, but he's looking to "add to it."
Brown said he's impressed with the argument espoused by Bratkowksi that three-receiver sets can be simple and not as complex as it seems because of the reads.
And, Bratkowski and Arians said they can see Dillon running out of a one-back set at times in a spread formation without gumming up the Bengals' running attack.
"It's just like anything in the NFL," said Bratkowski, a former offensive coordinator in Seattle. "You can't do too much of the same thing. You can do a number of things in a one-back set with a good runner. But you have to have a mix of personnel groups and different formations."
Bratkowski said he doesn't want "to fix what's not broke," in the running game. But, "there are things you can do to enhance it."
The new coordinator will have to merge a new passing scheme with a running game that is entrenched with a off-tackle scheme designed for Dillon when he arrived in 1997 and has finished fourth and third, respectivelty, in the NFL the last two seasons.
"But that's what I did in Pittsburgh," Gilbride said. "That's what I did in Jacksonville. You have to make some changes, but you want to do what you do best and bring the two together."
Actually, Gilbride thinks the best thing he did for Stewart was on the mental side. Only the Bengals and Browns had a worse passing game than the Steelers this season, but Gilbride felt Stewart got his career back on track during the last half of the season.
"I've been fortunate to be on teams that led the NFL in offense six times," Gilbride said. "But I think I'm proudest for getting Kordell squared away. It was a matter of convincing him he can do it . There was some emotional baggage and the scars he had from the previous year. We worked at it little by little, step by step, preparation through the week , and he was winning games for us at the end when the running game got stopped."
If that sounds like where Smith is now and where the Bengals would like to get him to be, Gilbride said, "I'm not aware of what they
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did because I spend so much time looking at defense. But it looks to be comparable and he's a similar athlete."
Sullivan, a Bobby Ross disciple out of the Joe Gibbs' aggressive play-action school, could see taking a wrinkle from the Rams to help Dillon. That's where the fullback is used more than a lead blocker and can also be played as a tight end and on the wing.
"To me, the biggest plays in football come off the running game," Sullivan said. "A big back who can really get it up in there and you'd have to say Dillon is one of the best in the league at it."
Sullivan, an offensive coordinator at LSU before joining Ross in the NFL with the Chargers and Lions the past nine seasons, has coached four Pro Bowl receivers in Anthony Miller, Tony Martin, Herman Moore and alternate Germane Crowell last season.
Sullivan might not be a fit with Bengals free-agent quarterback Scott Mitchell, a player who fell out of favor in the Ross regime in Detroit.
But that won't be known for a few more days.
"I don't know who it will be," LeBeau said. "But it will be a different look."