Burris hungers for '03

2-25-03, 5:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Jeff Burris met Marvin Lewis for the first time this past weekend over lunch, and the Bengals cornerback had it figured out by the time the food had been served. The old days had left with the menus.

"At one point, I almost reached out and hugged him," said Burris Tuesday. "He understands what it takes to win. He's been to the Promised Land. He understands what's necessary to be a great team. I can't wait to get it going."

The Bengals' secondary didn't have a good season last year for a lot of reasons, but there aren't a lot of answers in free agency and the draft. Only three cornerbacks on the projected free-agent list started more than eight games in 2002, so Lewis is going to need to get more out of what he has back there.

Burris is a good place to start because he knows people are staring after he signed a three-year, $4.5 million contract 11 months ago. But he is passionate (he's the team's Bible study leader) and competitive (he's been on four playoff teams), and is committed to helping the Bengals to the postseason.

He is literally hungry to prove himself again. Burris is on the meat-only diet and has

dropped from 190 to 182 pounds, the lightest he's been since he dipped to 170 after reconstructive knee surgery during his second year in the NFL.

"I know what the big question is about me,"Burris said. "Can I still run or not? If you want to judge me on last season, that's fine. But I know what I'm capable of doing."

Secondary coach Kevin Coyle has already sent his players cutups from last year's video and Burris understood immediately what happened to him.

"I noticed instead of playing to win, I was playing not to hurt the team," Burris said. "I was playing tentatively. You can't play cornerback that way."

You can't play football that way and Burris was far from the only Bengal who played like that. He thinks the presence of Lewis can make is team play more confidently. He thinks a coach can make a difference.

"Look at this year with (Jon) Gruden in Tampa Bay," Burris said. "Before he came, they had the best defense in football for three, four years, but they didn't win it. The major reason I signed here was because of the talent. We don't have a lack of talent. It's hard to pinpoint what happened, but maybe Coach Lewis is the guy who can give us the missing intangibles."

Burris lives in Indianapolis, so it was a natural for Lewis to meet with his starting cornerback during last week's NFL scouting combine. Coyle made the call to invite Burris and wife Lisa to lunch with him, Lewis, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, and assistant secondary coach Louie Cioffi.

Burris left the meeting convinced Lewis has the backing of ownership.

"He's made changes already that show you he has the confidence of Mr. (Mike) Brown," Burris said. "If you don't respect this guy when he comes into the locker room, then something is wrong. I walked in and you could tell just by the way he carried himself that he's confident in what he's doing."

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