BY GEOFF HOBSON
Right tackle Willie Anderson has been acting like a captain the past few seasons and his Bengals' teammates have made it official by voting him the offensive captain.
Right outside linebacker Takeo Spikes returns for another term as defensive captain, while tight end Macro Battaglia and kick returner Tremain Mack were voted captains of the special teams. Anderson will celebrate Friday, when the offensive leaders (Anderson, quarterback Akili Smith, running back Corey Dillon, receiver Peter Warrick) treat the rest of the offense to lunch and begin a weekly ritual they hope brings the team closer.
The vote was particularly gratifying to Mack as he continues his comeback from DUIs in his first two seasons. Despite serving the NFL's four-game suspension at the beginning of last season, he was named to the Pro Bowl after becoming the first Bengal ever to lead the AFC in kick returns with a 27.1-yard average.
"It shows me the guys have a lot of confidence and respect for me to represent them and that's what I'm going to do," said Mack, a safety who was a fourth-round pick out of Miami of Florida in 1997. "It's not unfamiliar to me. I've always been used to being the captain or the guy who runs the defense or calling the plays. It's just my first opportunity to do it here."
Anderson, heading into his fifth season and fresh off a six-year, $30.6 million contract extension, doesn't plan to change, which should make the media quite pleased.
"It's something I've always wanted," Anderson said. "I wanted to get to the point where once my play got consistent, the coaches would recognize me as a guy they could trust. Even though I wasn't a captain, I was a guy that talked a lot in the locker room. A lot of the older guys maybe didn't listen, but now I got to the point where my play has caught up to my age.
"To me, a leader is the one that stands up when things are going bad, and doesn't hide from the responsibility of the team and your teammates," Anderson said. "Not to be afraid after a loss to speak and not looking for the press just after a win. That's something Takeo's been great at."
Anderson is hoping the weekly lunches provide more than steak and chicken.
"It's part of getting to know your teammate better," Anderson said. "If you know each other, you try to help each other harder." Anderson let the rookie Warrick know his receivers were welcome, only if he helped pick up the tab.* WHERE'S THE HYPE?*
The closest thing to bulletin-board stuff today in the media's first round of the Bengals-Browns rivalry was five months old. It was Warrick's Draft Day prediction that the Bengals would be 1-0 after playing Cleveland, the team that didn't take him with the first pick. The only prediction Warrick made today was that he would do his "Paul Brown Leap," into the first row of seats if he scores a touchdown.
Asked if he had heard of Warrick's prediction, Browns quarterback Tim Couch said, "Yeah. That's kind of bulletin-board material. I'm aware of it. I guess that's the way he feels. We'll see how it goes on Sunday."
But Couch or Smith wouldn't delve into the feelings unleashed before, during and after Smith thumped his chest at the Browns sideline following the Bengals' last-play touchdown in Cleveland last season. Smith has never backed down from saying the Browns used him as leverage in contract negotiations with Couch hours before Cleveland took Couch No. 1 in the 1999 NFL Draft.
Except in the last few weeks, when he's saying nothing.
"I'm not as emotional," Smith admitted of Sunday's game. "Every game is big for me this year. What happened last year was last year. I'm going to go on from here. . .I'm not going to entertain no rivalry at all. What was said last year was said last year and I've got to move on."
Asked if he has proven to the Browns he was worthy of their pick, Smith said, "That's up to the Browns. Whatever they think. They're happy with their decision. So be it." Asked if he was trying hard to stay out of the sensitive stuff, Smith lowered his head and said, "Yes I am. I'm not going to say anything about it," although he did admit the Browns probably remember what he did after the 18-17 win.
"I'm just trying to go out and play," Couch said. "I'm not worried about what he did or said last year. He came in and beat us in our home stadium. That's the main thing I remember, so I want to go down there and do the same in their stadium. ... There's no hard feelings. Akili and I have a mutual respect for each other."
Browns coach Chris Palmer reportedly wasn't thrilled about that scene, but he sounded OK today.
"I didn't see it at the game. I saw it on TV," Palmer said. "That's just a player showing his emotions. I harbor no ill feelings. Each player is different. They conduct themselves in a manner that fits their personality."* REHBERG REDUX:*
Scott Rehberg gets the start for the Bengals at left guard in place of the suspended Matt O'Dwyer, so he knew what that meant today. Here come the questions about last year's late-season ugliness in Cleveland, when fellow Browns tackles Orlando Brown and Lomas Brown questioned his toughness after he sat out a game with the flu. Even though Rehberg had IVs sticking out of him the morning of the game.
Bengals coach Bruce Coslet defended Rehberg today, calling him a "sharp guy," who "came in here and did a good job learning our system." Coslet also made a point of saying anybody who didn't think Rehberg is tough, "doesn't know what they're talking about."
Orlando Brown ripped Rehberg after the game and Lomas Brown ripped him a few days after. But Rehberg said he still likes both guys, and that Lomas sought him out immediately after giving one reporter quotes in which he said Rehberg was like the boy who cried wolf too often.
"It was just unfortunate," Rehberg said. "What Lomas did was a little more inexcusable. It wasn't in the heat of passion. It wasn't right after the game. He had time to think about it. He knew what he was trying to say and what came out got a little mixed up. That's how he explained it to me. That morning he came and got me so he could explain it before I read it."
Rehberg started 10 games at right guard, two at left tackle and one at right tackle for the Browns last season. But Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander thinks the left guard spot Rehberg plays Sunday is his best place.
* WING AND PRAYER:* After missing the final eight games of the '99 season with an injured toe, Smith said today he prays every night that he doesn't get hurt so he can, "play the whole regular season and hopefully in the playoffs." Offensive coordinator Ken Anderson, the Bengals' 16-year quarterback, has been kidding him about the rules protecting quarterbacks.
"He says, 'You guys are treated like girls out there,' " Smith said, then quickly saying to a female reporter, "No offense. I told him it's not my fault we play in this era and you played back then. I'm happy with the rules and if the pressure comes I'm going to get out of there and throw the ball away."
Smith figures he won't have to pray about his team's attitude, He said last year the Bengals simply put on their uniforms without knowing they could win, while, "This year we believe before we go on the field."* PALMER POLITICAL:*
You don't have to tell Palmer that the Browns had a chance to draft Smith and Warrick. Asked which was the tougher choice, Palmer laughed: "They were both very tough. You're not going to get me on that one. You're just doing your job. That's good." . . .
Palmer said the Browns didn't opt for Warrick because he felt they needed immediate help on both lines and took Penn State defensive end Courtney Brown No. 1 this past April. He admitted the Couch-Smith decision came down to the final days, when Smith's great workout forced the Browns to take another look at Couch six days before the draft.
"I like Akili. I like the way he plays," Palmer said. "I like the way he's mature. When you have two players and put them at the top of the list, there's such a fine line between the selection, that tells you we were very interested. He would have been our second pick. That tells you what we thought of him."
By the way, Palmer was upset the press box stats that credited Brown with no tackles or sacks in his NFL debut against Jacksonville last Sunday and used some footage on his weekly TV show to display how well he thought the No. 1 pick played. "You know it's bad when the media complains," said Palmer of the reporters who asked him about the stats the day after the game. "I told them, "I'm just a football coach.' "
Palmer said Brown had one tackle for a loss on the goal line and could have had a sack if the official ruled Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell didn't get rid of the ball in time.