Coslet plays stall ball

A dozen years ago, coach Sam Wyche began the Bengals' Super Bowl season by brewing some team chemistry when he roomed African-American players with white players during training camp.

Now coach Bruce Coslet is hovering over a new, shiny orange and black cauldron. He's trying to find just the right bubbles for a new millennium, new stadium and new locker room. When a gaggle of players arrived Monday for the first day of work at Paul Brown Stadium's sprawling spa, they found the bulk of offensive players dressing next to defensive players instead of the traditional locker stalls by position or number.

"I wanted them to be closer to other guys, so I interspersed them, basically pulling names out of a hat. Offense, then defense," Coslet said. "I want them so they're closer to other guys. I wanted to change things."

When it comes to the Bengals locker room, any change is good. During the '90s, the size of the locker room was never a problem. It was just messy in spots. A surly veteran here, a young, unproven star there. Neither fit or ready for leadership. You virtually had to be a U.N. Peacekeeper to venture in the face of cliques and unrest that would occasionally explode in the form of a tirade to the media that sent shrapnel as far away as ESPN.

"Not exactly the friendly confines," mused one player today. "You couldn't point to one guy or one thing. It was just all the negativity."

But Coslet has seized the day. The bad apples are gone and there's a new place to put the bushel. The team's best players are willing to lead. So why not make a clean break from the past? Why not break up the room and bring them together in a space that is one of the biggest locker rooms in the Western Hemisphere?

"It breaks up the cliques and everybody gets to know each other a little differently," said quarterback Akili Smith.

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"That builds more of a team relationship. Who knows? I may start hanging out with Brian Simmons."

That's because Smith, assuming the role of offensive leader in his second season, is dressing next to Simmons, a third-year linebacker on the verge of the Pro Bowl. Smith is a good place to start. He's got the equivalent of a corner office in the corporate world. A locker on a corner. In fact, it's the first locker on the left as you walk into the room.

"That'so I can get him quick because the meeting rooms are right outside," Coslet said.

But Smith knows why he's there. He knows why linebacker Takeo Spikes, a third-year player who is the defensive captain, has the first locker on the right as you walk in.

"Everybody has to walk past us on the way to the meeting rooms," Smith said. "To me it shows how much Bruce and (Bengals President) Mike Brown are willing to do to change things."

End John Copeland, the eight-year dean of the defense, is fittingly on the end at the other end of the room. He's next to right tackle Willie Anderson, thanks to last month's contract extension the richest lineman on either side of the ball.

"At first, I wasn't too sure about it," Copeland said. "You like to be with your guys. The D-Line, we're close. But I think it will grow on me. The more I think about it, the more I'm interested to see what happens."

Marco Battaglia, a fifth-year tight end, approves. He gives everyone a hard time, particularly linebackers he beats on pass routes. He noticed outside backer Steve Foley is one locker away, "so I just have to lean over and say, 'Hey Fole.' "

Battaglia does have a rookie to his immediate left in running back Curtis Keaton, but he doesn't mind. Battaglia is a Rutgers product and knows that the fourth-rounder started his career at West Virginia before transferring to James Madison.

"I like the kid. He's from the Big East," Battaglia said. "It's unheard of that a fifth-year guy is next to a rookie. But I don't mind. Maybe I can help him."

You'd be amazed at how players can slip in and out of an NFL locker room without teammates ever knowing their names. In the old days, how would a cornerback wearing No. 22 like Rodney Heath ever bump into a rookie offensive lineman wearing No. 61?

"You wouldn't know until you read it in the paper who's here and who's not," Heath said.

Heath didn't totally escape his position. On his left is No. 21, cornerback Tom Carter. But on his right is third-round pick Ron Dugans. On Carter's left is Dugans' fellow Florida State rookie receiver, No. 1 pick Peter Warrick. Note that Carter, a highly-regarded eight-year veteran who has been leading the Bengals' offseason bible discussions, is next to Warrick, a player trying to overcome off-field baggage.

"These cats from Florida State," Heath said. "I'm going to pick their brain on their tricks of the trade."

The only position still together is the kickers and punters. Kicker Doug Pelfrey says an offense-defense rift has never been a major problem in his seven seasons. But not only does he like the makeup of this locker room, he likes the makeover.

"It's shaped like a football." Pelfrey said. "No corners. It's open."

Which means it's different. Which is what Coslet had in mind all along.

"I did it in New York," said Coslet of his Jets' stint in the early '90s. "Now was a good time to do it. And the room is big enough to do it."

Maybe it's a little thing. But it was a big thing for Coslet to do.

Simply because it's exactly that.

Different.

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