Business of Bengals is business

8-26-03, 3:05 p.m. Updated:
8-26-03, 9:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Marvin Lewis says he isn't trying to send a message because he knows if Ron Dugans could play, he would, and he tried.

But when the fallout settled from Tuesday's release of one of their most reliable teammates, that's how some in the locker room took it after Dugans didn't play in a pre-season game this year with Achilles' tendonitis. Also gone Tuesday was another veteran who came off the bench to fill a need professionally and well in strong safety JoJuan Armour.

"It hurts big time to lose 81. He's one of our own," said wide receiver Chad Johnson, referring to Dugans' uniform number. "(Lewis) stresses that a lot. If you can't practice, you can't play. What's his quote? If I can't count on you now, when can I count on you? It's completely different. Big time."

Tight end Matt Schobel noticed that No. 81 is no longer around.

"Dugey obviously did a lot of great things here," Schobel said. "I don't know if he was sending a message or not. But I think everybody kind of took it as one."

When healthy, Johnson, Schobel, and their teammates know they can rely on Dugans for solid production (47 catches last season in a part-time role) and true professionalism on special teams, where he had 41 stops over the past two seasons.

But Lewis didn't have a healthy Dugans and he wasn't sure when he was going to get one. Darrell Wills, Dugans' agent based in Tallahassee, Fla., said he and the Bengals reached a six-week injury settlement, which means he can sign with any other team but Cincinnati if he clears waivers Wednesday. Dugans isn't eligible to sign back with the Bengals until the 11th game of the season, which Wills called, "remote," but he wouldn't rule out his client returning to Cincinnati when he becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season.

"He's not bitter," Wills said. "He wishes that they wouldn't have done it because we think it's going to respond. He understands it's a business, he knows other teams are going to come after a healthy Ron Dugans."

The moves appear to put the receiver and secondary positions in sharper focus for the final roster cutdown Aug. 31. The five receivers look to be Johnson, Peter Warrick, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Danny Farmer, and Kelley Washington. It would now appear that Lawrence Hamilton, or Marquise Walker, or the newly-acquired Kevin Walter is headed to the

practice squad.

It would appear that the Bengals are leaning to 10 defensive backs, which seemingly pits rookie free-agent cornerback Terrell Roberts against 2002 second-round safety Lamont Thompson for the last spot. Conventional wisdom is the second-rounder wins that one.

Warrick, who has played with Dugans since 1995, expressed the shock of his fellow wideouts.

"Whew, I didn't see that one coming," Warrick said. "You know that hurt me."

It hurt Lewis, too. But he had 52 other guys to think about. Dugans has had problems with his Achilles' before, but it didn't stop him from playing in the last 35 straight games. Yet with Dugans feeling more pain in the foot and unable to play for an indefinite period, Lewis felt he had to make a move.

"I didn't feel we could take the luxury of holding the spot and seeing where he's at. Let's get him healthy," said Lewis, who left open the possibility of a return. "It gives him options, gives us options, and we'll see what's best.

"If he could have been out here, he would have been out here, so there's nothing to read into that," Lewis said. "Based on the time it was going to take, it didn't seem like it was going to be in our best interest."

Dugans said Tuesday the foot could come around in a week, or maybe longer. He's extremely disappointed because he feels like he has plenty to offer despite the injury, which he thinks is a short-term problem. Dugans said he would consider a return, but he also said, "Hey, it's a business."

Wills said with Dugans now not trying to prepare for a game and devoting his time entirely to rehab, he could return, "potentially in a couple of weeks."

Lewis' business is now cutting a football team and a big part of that is finding guys who not only can play, but can play many things. For the second straight day, they claimed off waivers a big young receiver who dominated college ball in Michigan.

On Tuesday, it was Eastern Michigan's all-time leading receiver, Walter, a 6-3, 218-pounder who was a seventh-round draft pick of the Giants. On Monday, it was the 6-2, 219-pound Walker, the Michigan single-season record-holder, arriving at his third NFL team.

Lewis is apparently looking for more special teams and blocking from the receivers already here. But none of the young players would appear ready to burst into the top five yet.

"You have to have guys that can play in all areas of the game," Lewis said. "You have to be able to block, catch, play on special teams. Special teams is number one, offense and defense number two. We're pushing the guys that are here to do more. We're going to take a look at guys."

Indications are they may be higher on Walter than Walker because Lewis said, "This a guy we would have drafted later in the draft, or signed as a free agent if he wasn't drafted. We had a liking for him. We felt like he brought some of that to the table."

Walter had 211 catches, for 2,838 yards (13.5 yards per catch) and 20 touchdowns in his career at EMU, but none for the Giants in the preseason.

Ironically, Walter replaced another Mid-American Conference player in Armour. Armour, the two-time MAC Defensive Player of the Year as a Miami of Ohio linebacker, is seen primarily as a run stopper and didn't meet Lewis' requirements for two-way safeties that can play the pass as well as the run. The Bengals turned to him in each of the last two seasons and he came off the bench in an attempt to shore up a porous run defense in 19 starts.

After the Steelers shred the Bengals on 275 yards rushing in the fourth game of the 2001 season, Armour got promoted to the starting lineup and helped them finish 11th in rushing and ninth overall in defense in the league.

But the claiming of Rogers Beckett off waivers and the move of Kevin Kaesviharn from cornerback to safety spelled the end, although Lewis also left the door open if they change their minds.

"I know they want their safeties to be interchangeable and I thought I showed them that I am," Armour said. "But it was handled with class and I've got a lot of respect for Coach Lewis. I'm grateful to the Brown family and all the coaches, Coach (Dick) LeBeau who gave me a chance."

Armour has a lot of friends around the league. LeBeau is in Buffalo, former Bengals secondary coach Ray Horton is in Detroit, and former defensive coordinator Mark Duffner is in Green Bay. But he'll probably get picked up after Opening Day so a team doesn't have to pay him a full salary.

Armour, 27, was a seventh-round draft pick of the Raiders in 1999 and played with them for the preseason before getting waived and picked up by the Jaguars. Jacksonville released him in two weeks and he arrived for good in Cincinnati off waivers Sept. 21, 1999.

A Toledo native, Armour has always been one of the most active Bengals off the field. Last month, he was honored as Cincinnati Bengal of the Year at the 8th Annual March of Champions banquet at the Cincinnati Gardens in an event that honors local amateur and professional athletes and coaches for their accomplishments on the field and in the community.

He is founder and president of the Care for Kids Foundation, which includes the Knights in Armour program that honors academic achievement.

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