(Cold) War Room

4-17-01, 12:05 a.m.

The week of the NFL Draft in the Bengals (Cold) War Room began Monday.

Word leaked through the league's listening posts that the Arizona Cardinals are selling themselves strongly on the idea of drafting Texas left tackle Leonard Davis two spots ahead of Cincinnati.

Really? Even though the Cardinals already have a left tackle and about all they have left on the defensive line is a blocking sled?

Welcome to The Draft, which is some times more like Henry Kissinger on a fly pattern.

It's the Bay of Bigs pitting Arizona and Cincinnati at picks two and four, respectively.

It's the Gulf of Tomlinson dividing the Browns and Bengals at picks three and four.

It's the Chiefs Quarterback Crisis with the Missles of Michael (Vick) pointed at San Diego on the first strike as the Trent (Green) Offensive lurks in a first response.

"We're going to tighten it down a little bit more than we have in the past," Bengals President Mike Brown told his staff Monday morning in the first ever draft week meeting in Paul Brown Stadium's war room.

Gone are the days back at turn-of-the-century Spinney Field, when employees could wander into a large auditorium and see the draft meetings.

Gone are the days of ancient and intimate Riverfront Stadium, when the draft room was smack in the middle of all other business.

"The room is smaller," Brown said of the new digs he digs. "We don't have room for people to just walk in here and watch. Maybe that's as it should be."

So loose lips sink picks.

You can bet calls will be made to each of the other 30 close-to-the-vest teams this week as the Bengals and the 13 position coaches are recommended to get a pulse on the rest of the league.

You can bet Sportspages.com will get bookmarked on the PBS computers this week with the coaches and the personnel department urged to scan the league's local sports sections to get the latest draft fix.

You can also bet Brown will be the guy trying to steer scouts and coaches onto common ground down a slippery slope.

"I try to get them to commit," said Brown of his coaches, "and not weasel. I try to get them to say all they need to say."

The betting money had the Cards folding for Florida defensive tackle Gerard Warren. But now word is if Arizona can't trade out of No. 2,

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the only player it values with the second pick and a $10 million bonus is Davis.

Then assuming Cleveland also can't trade down and makes the safe pick at No. 3 for TCU running back LaDainian Tomlinson, the Bengals are sifting through Warren, Florida right tackle Kenyatta Walker, Missouri defensive end Justin Smith and Michigan wide receiver David Terrell.

But that doesn't matter now. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning are devoted to the assistant coaches who stand in front of the room in front of the big board and present to the group every player at their spot who could be drafted or signed as a college free agent.

Wednesday afternoon, Thursday and Friday are earmarked for scenarios, ranging from worst case with an atomic bomb in the first round, to mock drafts through the seven rounds.

With the coaches' narratives interspersed Monday with frequent medical reports from trainer Paul Sparling and occasional police reports from director of pro/college personnel Jim Lippincott, there are times the war room sounds more like a special episode of "NYPD Blue," meets "ER"

That's the info Brown synthesizes with what his coaches have learned in their recent campus trips with what he has been talking about with his scouts since the beginning of last season.

Monday morning begins the inexorable push toward consensus, with Brown sitting in front of the board and making more like Wolf Blitzer instead of Ron Wolf with the tough questions.

On Monday morning, he asked offensive line coach Paul Alexander, "I saw on film this guy never blocked a twist. Why?" He asked safeties coach Ray Horton, "Doesn't he have a girl problem?" After years of drafting cornerbacks who can do everything but play the ball, Brown told new cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle, "Yeah, that guy did everything right in that one game. He ran with him, ran with him, but when the ball came down, he wasn't there. . . The most important thing I need to know about these guys is if they can play the ball."

It's his third different draft room, but Brown has the same logistics he had when he and Paul Brown agreed that center Bob Johnson should be the Bengals first draft ever.

Brown has a desk with a phone to the right of the massive, ceiling-to-floor board. The board is as long as 30 index-like cards, one of which is marked with a player's name, his college, his number, his height, weight, 40-yard dash and medical status 1-4.

Behind Brown is three mock drafts through the second round. Ourlad's has the Bengals taking Smith No. 4 and Purdue guard-tackle Matt Light No. 36. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. calls it Davis No. 4 and Stanford defensive tackle Willie Howard No. 36. Pro Football Weekly's Joel Buchsbaum goes with Davis and TCU defensive end Aaron Schobel.

Pete Brown, Mike's brother and the club's senior vice president who runs the draft board, has the same desk and phone set up to the left of the big board. To Pete's right, along a wall that charts every available free agent as well as the starters of all AFC teams, sits Lippincott and Sparling.

Along the back of the room with a river view are two extra tables that have been brought into the room for the week. Starting from left to right from the side wall that has all the NFC lineups sits director of business development Troy Blackburn, executive vice president Katie Blackburn (Mike Brown's daughter and Troy Blackburn's wife), defensive line coach Tim Krumrie, Horton, vice president Paul Brown, Mike's son who scouts and negotiates contracts, head coach Dick LeBeau and scout Duke Tobin.

The rest of the assistant coaches are huddled around four permanent tables in the middle of the room.

"All I ask is that no one smokes," Brown said. "In the old days we used to come out of there like you were coming out of a gas chamber."

The closest thing to a smoker Monday was new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, who only chewed a cigar while Alexander made the first presentation.

"I know people think I sit behind a curtain and make all the picks," said Mike Brown. "But the coaches have a big weight here in who we take."

Those who swing the most weight are the veterans. Brown looks at Jim Anderson, his running backs coach for the past 17 seasons, and has a certain trust. Just like with Alexander, which is probably why he was tapped to go first.

"You need to have a feel," Brown said. "A guy like Jim Anderson, Paul Alexander, guys who have been here a long time, I rely on them heavily. More than someone who has been here a year or two. I'm a little bit more careful because I just don't know. I don't hold them to the same standard."

Coyle, a highly-regarded college coach for the past 20 years, made his first presentation in a NFL draft room Monday morning. He came off as expected: Studious and thorough.

But when Brown asked him if the Bengals could take one of the corners in the second round, Coyle, on the job just four months, was honest enough to say he wasn't quite sure.

"I do know he's developing, a guy who will come on in a few years," Coyle said, "but I'm not sure where that would put him."

Brown: "Kevin hasn't even gone through his first draft yet and that's understandable. But if I ask Jim Anderson where a guy fits, I would expect them to literally give me the round by A, B, and C."

Alexander has made no bones about where he feels Davis and Walker belong. Last week he said both were worthy of a top five pick. On Monday, he handed out sheets to the draft room that showed just how rare that is.

Alexander headed his handout, "1st ROUND OLINE PICKS 1992-2000. In the last nine drafts, only four linemen have gone with the fourth pick or higher, and they've all been left tackles. Jonathan Ogden went fourth to Baltimore in 1996, Chris Samuels No. 3 to Washington last year, Tony Boselli second to Jacksonville in 1995, and Orlando Pace No. 1 to the Rams in 1997.

But Alexander knows what is best for the team might mean he doesn't get Davis or Walker. After Krumrie spoke Monday afternoon, Alexander said, "Look, if they think Smith is worthy, is a player, and is better than the other guys, I'll sit down and shut my mouth."

Which is why they debate all week.

Sometimes the coaches wish Sparling would shut his mouth. After a coach delivers a few brilliant paragraphs, Sparling can kill it with, "He's a 3-plus medical," and a coach will cringe because he wonders how the guy has played 48 games in four college seasons.

"I tell them," Sparling said, "don't shoot the messenger."

But the medical is a must. It's also a way to try and explain why a player had a down year his senior season after a solid junior season.

"Sprained an ankle running the stadium steps in July," said Tobin, reading from his report in an example of how precise it all gets.

The tables are filled with notebooks, coffee cups and soda cans. Each coach hands out his work of three months of film study and campus visits. Brown feels he needs the notebooks to speak up and state their cases if the right decision is to be made.

More and more during the meeting, Brown is either asking or checking on intelligence tests. There is a sense that in the past decade, there have been too many decisions in which talent got the nod over IQ. And there is now a nagging sense that bad things keep happening to a team that could be smarter.

"All I know," Brown said, "is that it helps a football player if he's smart."

But he knows the first smart move has to be made in that nice new room on the river.

They just can't tell anybody, yet.

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