5-7-01, 9:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Just how the Bengals ended up Monday with one of the NFL's best blocking fullbacks and a high-octane special teams player is that age-old combination of vision, execution and just plain fate.
And it's also what happens when the economic system favors younger, cheaper players.
Lorenzo Neal, whose shot in Denver had fallen through when Howard Griffith re-signed with the Broncos, gave old college coach Steve Mooshagian a call on Friday to wonder if the Bengals looked as good in person as they did on paper. Buffalo was interested, but couldn't do anything until after June 1 roster cuts.
Mooshagian, the Bengals receivers coach, helped recruit Neal to Fresno State a dozen years ago when he still remembers how impressed he was with the maturity of the minister's son. Mooshagian told Neal that head coach Dick LeBeau had the club on the rise and management was filling holes from left tackle to defensive end to quarterback to wide receiver.
With fullback Clif Groce still hurting with a sprained knee, Mooshagian and other coaches were excited about Neal's interest. But with the Bengals toying with keeping one fullback and the high regard for Nick Williams, the idea was to get through minicamp and see what was up Monday afternoon.
But by then, Neal was signed to a two-year deal in Cincinnati. On Sunday morning, Williams, the Bengals' lone healthy fullback, ripped his anterior cruciate knee ligament running pass routes. Even before Williams went into the magnetic resonance imaging machine, Bengals President Mike Brown told scout Duke Tobin to call agent Jim Steiner.
Neal arrived for a visit in Cincinnati Monday morning with plans to visit the Bears in Chicago next. So he's got enough clothes to stay for this week's veteran's voluntary workouts.
Running backs coach Jim Anderson knew the coaches and management wanted him badly enough that he had a
feeling. Moments after Neal agreed on a two-year deal, Anderson handed him a playbook with his name already on it.
Asked the last time he had such a good blocking fullback, Anderson thought back to his 18 seasons on the staff and said, "A long time. A long, long time. There have been guys who could do more things, but for blocking. . .He'll hit you, no question about that.
"There are two sides," Anderson said. "I feel just terrible for Nick. It's awful. This was going to be his year. But to be able to get a guy of Lorenzo Neal's character and caliber, it's a great thing."
Neal, who brings an embossed reputation as a locker-room-leader-work-ethic guy, was right in character. While his contract was getting typed, he did some lifting and ran on the treadmill.
"Age is only how well you take care of your body," said Neal, who turns 31 at the end of the season.
The signing reinforces LeBeau's belief that proven veterans are a good way to go for a team whose won-loss record and age has been consistently low during the '90s.
With Neal and quarterback Jon Kitna in the starting lineup, the offense has an average age of 28 with an average of 6.8 NFL seasons. In last year's opener, the Bengals lined up with starters averaging 25.5 years of age with just four NFL seasons.
The Bengals' busy off-season and the parade of free-agent visits caught Neal's eye and was one of the things that spurred his phone call to Mooshagian.
"Richmond is a great player," Neal said of former Dolphins left tackle Richmond Webb. "They're trying to do some things. Going and getting a Kitna, they're getting guys who are key players that have made differences and have had success in the league. Players who have won and been in the playoffs. Winning is an attitude, just like losing is an attitude. You surround yourself with winners and it helps the young guys."
Neal is particularly intrigued with the quarterback competition involving Kitna, Akili Smith and Scott Mitchell: two playoff quarterbacks and a top three pick.
"Let's face it, in Tennessee, if Steve McNair goes down, Neil O'Donnell comes in and wins games for you," Neal said. "That's what this league is about."
Neal has a history with defensive head coaches, which is probably why he felt comfortable with LeBeau. He came from Tennessee's Jeff Fisher after stints with Tampa Bay's Tony Dungy and the Jets' Bill Parcells. Guys who appreciate the punishing ground game Neal can provide as a lead blocker.
"Dick is a straight up guy. I like Dick," Neal said. "He has similar traits like Coach Fisher. A players' coach. A guy who tells you this is how it is. You leave it on the field for those guys. At this level, they have an understanding for the game because they've been through it. . .You know they're going to go to bat for you."
Neal signed a four-year deal in Tennessee before the '99 season and helped the Titans to the Super Bowl with his blocking for running back Eddie George, as well as kick returner Derrick Mason.
The Titans wanted him to take a cut from what was believed to be a $650,000 salary this past season, and as Neal said, "Here I am."
But Neal said he was happy in Nashville and while he would like to play more than the 38 percent of the snaps the Titans offered last year, he also knows what the position offers.
"It depends what happens in the game," Neal said. "Some games you've got to pound the ball and you play more than you normally do and there might be some games you don't play much because you have to throw the ball. You have to be willing to understand the role. You can't be stubborn. If something's not working, you have to do other things. Maybe go to a one-back set, taking out the tight end in a two-back set, or three (wide receivers), how ever they decide to do it. You just try to do the best you can."
Mooshagian thinks Neal will get plenty of work even though the Bengals plan to use a three-receiver set more than usual.
"He'll help us on the goal line and he'll help us in short yardage," Mooshagian said. "And when you get the lead, you try to shorten the game and pound the ball. That's what Tennessee did with him and George."
Mooshagian also predicted that special teams coach Al Roberts will have a big smile Tuesday because of Neal's wedge blocking on kickoffs that sprung Mason to the Pro Bowl. That's where Bengals kick returner Tremain Mack went after the '99 season.
"Wouldn't it be nice," Mooshagian asked, "if Corey and Tremain go back to the Pro Bowl and they take Lorenzo with them?"
It sounds as logical as Neal's 72-hour sojourn from the top of the AFC Central to a team trying to get there.