1-20-04, 6:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
MOBILE, Ala. _ They are two New York City guys down on the corner arguing about who has the best teams.
"Christ the King? That's a girls' school," said Staten Island's Kevin Coyle. "When men were men back when I was playing in school, (Monsignor) Farrell would have knocked the crap out of Christ the King."
"We went to Farrell and beat them," said Will Poole of Queens, who, as one of the Big Apple's rare football and basketball schoolboy stars, just isn't going to walk away from an argument. "It was a thrashing."
"A thrashing," repeated Coyle with a laugh. "A thrashing."
Just two guys getting to know each other down here on the corner at the Senior Bowl with Coyle, the Bengals secondary coach, and Poole, USC's highly-regarded cornerback, getting acquainted the only way two guys from the City can during practices for the North team in preparation for Saturday's game against the South.
And there is a buzz on the corner when it comes the Bengals and these North cornerbacks. Poole and Oklahoma's Derrick Strait could very well be there with the 17th pick in the first round of the April 24-25 NFL Draft and one of them could be the very first defensive back drafted in the first round to play cornerback for the first time in Bengals' history.
There is a new era, but the position is under the gun again. Especially after the last injury-riddled six games in which they allowed eight of their 23 touchdown passes, five 100-yard receiving games and saw foes convert better than 50 percent of their third downs at 39 of 77.
The Bengals already have a young first-round-type corner yet to play a snap from scrimmage in the NFL in last year's fourth-rounder, Dennis Weathersby. At 6-1 and 204 pounds, he's taller and heavier than the 5-11, 190-pound Poole or the 5-10, 190-pound Strait, and he has been told he has to emerge in March, April, and May to become the kind of starting corner they believe he can become.
"We had a good talk at the end of the season," said Coyle after Weathersby dressed for just four games and didn't dress in the other 12. "I told him he's in a really good position. 'You're a guy that is almost like a rookie, but you know everything you need to know.' .We're looking for Dennis Weathersby to be more than a special teams player. . .It's up to him. He has to come in and really compete his tail off."
We may be watching part of the evolution of head coach Marvin Lewis' future secondary here this week. Do they take Poole or Strait and does Weathersby do what he's supposed to do and become more intense and focused? And are those your bookends somewhere down a near road for five years?
Coyle made it clear Tuesday that the corner opposite Tory James is up for grabs. "You can't put a stamp on who the starters are going to be. That will be determined as we go along," is how he put it, as they wait to see how Artrell Hawkins' knees and Jeff Burris' head and legs rebound from an arduous second half of the season.
(Not to mention that the two of them combine for about $3.5 million under this year's salary cap with an average age in '04 of 30.)
The injuries seem to be following Coyle around. Poole showed up lame for Tuesday morning's practice and couldn't work with a tight Achilles'. He's crossing his fingers that he'll be able to play Saturday as he pays the price for
overcompensating on a leg bruise. But he's from the City, he's tough, and he didn't miss a game last year at USC or the year before that at Ventura Junior College, and the scouts already know what he can do.
Here is one NFL observer's take on Poole after Tuesday's practice:
"He plays the ball well. He's got natural instincts and he has a track record of using them in games. He was a very, very productive college player and the thing about this year is that he played his best in the biggest games. When it was big, he's been a guy that shows up and makes a lot of plays. A very athletic guy."
The take on Strait:
"A very aggressive player. A very competitive guy. He's always close the ball. He's always challenging people."
Poole picked off seven passes this past season (Bengal corners accounted for eight), broke up 14, and made sure Michigan All-American wide receiver Braylon Edwards didn't go off in USC's Rose Bowl victory earlier this month.
But the first stat Poole recites is "80 tackles."
"That's the one thing I like to do is make hits," Poole said. "I think it's better to be a complete player. I wouldn't mind going anywhere. I'm from New York City. I'll fit."
Poole knows the Bengals from afar, but he knows them. He didn't play with former USC quarterback Carson Palmer, "but I'm part of the USC family. We keep our eye on the Trojan alumni." The team also caught his eye with the hiring of Lewis.
"Great coach. Defensive-minded and he had that defense with the Ravens that was unbelievable," Poole said. "I started to follow them a little bit when he went there. People used to laugh at the Bengals and make jokes. Not anymore. They're definitely a team that has to be reckoned with."
Poole almost didn't have a chance to be reckoned with after opting to go to Boston College. He capped off a red-shirt freshman season with a pick and eight tackles in the Aloha Bowl, then made the BC basketball team.
But according to The New York Daily News, Poole was expelled for violating a team rule. Although no police reports were filed, one newspaper reported he had stolen money from a teammate. The Daily News said.
Whatever it was, Poole has certainly handled it maturely and well. He politely declined to discuss the incident this week, but said, "That was four years ago. A lot of things change from 18 to 22 years old. I got kicked in the butt. I had maturity problems. I made the mistake. It was a one-time deal. Nothing I did is repeated and I've learned a lot about being a professional. Coach (USC head coach Pete) Carroll gave me a second chance and I took full advantage of it."
That's the kind of progress the Bengals hope to see from the 23-year-old Weathersby, who is actually slightly younger than Poole. They think Weathersby is a fine person and player, they just want to see him get into the game more mentally.
"We all think highly of him," Coyle said. "It's time for him to prove he can play on a consistent basis, and raise the level of his competitiveness and his focus and have the determination to be a great NFL player. He has the physical skills to be a very competitive player on this level."
Coyle said Weathersby indicated he wanted to be all of those things very anxiously at that last meeting when Coyle told him this offseason is crucial in his career. He didn't play more because he wasn't a guy who could be used on a multiple of positions on special teams. When the injuries hit the secondary in the middle of the year, he got a sniff on teams, but Coyle admitted his Easter gun-shot wound in the back (which pretty much made him available with the first pick of the draft's second day), put him behind.
"It was because of his inability to train in April, May, and June. We didn't get really going with him until July," Coyle said. "We brought him in during training camp and he did OK, but he lost some zip. Those nagging injuries maybe tended to be more bothersome than it might have been. That stuff won't be a factor (this year)."
Actually, Coyle thinks a full year in Lewis' off-season conditioning program is going to help everyone in the secondary. About to turn 31, James is still clearly the team's best corner and arguably the best free-agent pickup they've ever had. But insiders think he might have got gassed late in the season after playing the most football of his life.
After helping the Raiders to last year's AFC title despite a broken leg in his first season as a starter, James started 16 games this year for the first time in his career this past year with a secondary-leading 1,000-plus snaps.
"I don't think he's ever played close to that many snaps in a season," Coyle said. " So I do think maybe at the tail end of the year he was a little worn down with the number of snaps, and maybe with our way of doing things. Our routine that we had.
"When you look at what we do on a day-to-day basis, it's a demanding schedule that Marvin has instituted here, one that we need to get to where we want to go. I think that also plays a part. . .Just like I'm talking about Dennis, I think he'll be more aware of that in his preparation getting ready for it. This will be a great year to see him respond in a real positive way, and play consistently at the level he can play because he's got ability. . .We all saw that."
Coyle says he can't talk publicly about the players he's coaching here, but he's delighted at the chance to direct the drills rather than taking notes up in the stands.
"Now you know they're using your language and you know if what they're doing is right," Coyle said. "You get to see how they respond when you tell them to do something. These guys are good here. There's not a problem with retention."
Take Tuesday's checking drill that defensive backs use on receivers at the line of scrimmage. Because Coyle didn't have time to go over it before practice because there were no meetings, "They got a little jammed up. But they got through it. They fought through it and that's the kind of thing you like to learn about them."
Just like he's learning about the kid from Queens.
"A thrashing," Coyle said with a shake of his head.
Who knows? Maybe it's the start of something that ends on April 24 at No. 17.