10-3-01, 4:20 p.m.
Updated: 10-4-01, 8:05 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Rich Braham is back at center for the Bengals for Sunday's game against Pittsburgh after doctors said his herniated neck disc poses minimal risks if he plays.
Bengals trainer Paul Sparling said Wednesday that Braham's situation has to be closely monitored week to week and that he could need season-ending surgery if his symptoms change.
But since the bulging disc is low in the neck and since there is no tingling, numbness or weakness, Sparling said it is safe for Braham to play.
"This is why they hired me, to play football," said Braham, who signed a two-year deal before the season. "It's what I enjoy doing and as long as I'm not at risk, I want to play. I played the first three games with it and I feel like I ought to be able to go the rest of the way with it."
Sparling said Braham would wear a protective collar
that acts like a safety belt, which will prevent his head from going "into full hyperextension. It should not inhibit what he has to do."
The club made the call after Dr. Gordon Bell examined Braham Wednesday morning at the Cleveland Clinic and agreed with other Cincinnati doctors who thought Braham could play. The initial diagnosis Monday was he needed surgery.
Sparling said when the Bengals examine college prospects at the annual NFL scouting combine, they routinely come across linemen who have similar findings on their MRIs.
"But there's no clinical finding of numbness, tingling and weakness," Sparling said, "and they've been playing for years and continue to play for years. We're cautiously optimistic he'll be able to do it."
On Tuesday, the Bengals brought in for tryouts Quentin Neujahr, a seven-year player who has been with three clubs, and John Romero, a sixth-round pick of the Eagles a year ago. But Bengals President Mike Brown said the finding of multiple doctors has convinced the club Braham is as healthy as he was for the past few games and won't make roster moves now.
Braham didn't get back from Cleveland in time to practice Wednesday, but is expected to work Thursday.
CAMPAIGN STOP:** Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson, who could use some Pro Bowl votes, will probably end up voting again for Steelers linebacker Jason Gildon for the NFL All-Star game.
"I vote for him for the Pro Bowl every year," said Anderson of this week's upcoming duel.
"He's one of the top pass rushers in the league right now. He's the quickest guy I've faced this year. . .He doesn't take any downs off."
Anderson gives Gildon the ultimate Steeler compliment when he calls him a cross between Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd, the two best Pittsburgh backers in the post Ham-Lambert era.
"He's not just a speed guy. He's a guy with a lot of different moves," Anderson said. "The best thing about him is he knows how to play the game. He's taking a little bit of both from Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd. He's both of them combined in one. He's got Lloyd's moves and the hustle that he plays with."
THE BEAR:** Here's what coaches mean when they talk about blitzes and say, "Sometimes the bear gets you." Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski pointed to running back Corey Dillon's 14-yard loss on strong safety Rodney Harrison's blitz Sunday in San Diego.
Bratkowski said it was a similar blitz to the one the Patriots ran in the opener, the one on which Dillon blew past New England's Lawyer Milloy for a season-high gain of 41 yards.
"That timed out just a hair differently," Bratkowski said. "Those are some of the 'stuff happens,' and they happened in that game."
JOHNSON PATIENT: The Florida Fraternity made sure it congratulated Bengals second-round pick Chad Johnson on his first two NFL catches for 28 yards and his first touchdown of eight yards. Johnson heard from cousins Keyshawn Johnson (Buccaneers) and Samari Rolle (Titans) and buddies Edgerrin James (Colts) and Santana Moss (Jets).
"I know they play for different teams, but it's great to have that support," said Johnson of the weekly
Sunday night phone calls. We keep in touch on the cell phone or the two-way."
Johnson is being patient about his numbers as he fits into the No. 3 receiver role behind Darnay Scott and Peter Warrick. He says he's working on becoming a complete receiver and says he'd rather throw a block or run a clear-out pattern for Scott or Warrick.
He won't reveal his conversation with Keyshawn, except to say, "He says I've still got a long way to go."
Chad Johnson did have a ball go off his hands Sunday that bounced in the air for an interception. Tape showed Chargers linebacker Junior Seau did tip the ball at the last second to change its direction, but it was an interception not blamed on quarterback Jon Kitna.
Johnson had no desire to get the first touchdown ball for his archives since it came from a loss. But it was waiting for him in his locker Monday, courtesy of player relations director Eric Ball.