Fan-ning the flames

7-27-04, 5:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals President Mike Brown expressed caution Tuesday when talking about a rookie quarterback facing a schedule of seven teams that won at least 10 games last season. Head coach Marvin Lewis smiled and said he wouldn't offer "caution," to describe his thoughts on the 2004 season. But both couldn't contain their enthusiasm about a fan base that has responded with its biggest turnout in 12 years by virtually selling out the first six Paul Brown Stadium games 54 days before the Sept. 19 home opener.

"We have a big challenge, yet we think we're improving. People can sense that. They want to be a part of that and you can see that in the ticket sales. They're booming," Brown said at Tuesday's PBS media luncheon in advance of Friday's report date at Georgetown College. "I credit Marvin with turning it around. He's done an excellent job."

The Bengals haven't sold tickets like this at the beginning of the season since 1992, the last year of their streak of 43 straight Riverfront Stadium sellouts that dated to 1988.

"Our attendance fell off. We earned it," said Brown of the dry stretch from '91-02. "We're coming back now. This is a bigger stadium. It seats over 65,000 people, and if we win, it's going to be like the old days at Riverfront. To my eye, that's a beautiful thing. I love walking in there with the crowd humming. The electricity in the air. We're going to have some of that this year. If we win games, it will hum."

Brown, who breaks his media silence at this event, is characteristically cautious of how many wins given the demanding schedule at home and on the road. Miami, Baltimore, Denver, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland are in that first stretch at PBS. Only the division rivals Steelers and Browns failed to won 10 games in '03.

But Brown is grateful the Bengals are back on the map with the Sept. 19 Miami game the first nationally-televised game in Cincy in seven years, and the Oct. 25 game against Denver the first Monday Nighter in 15 seasons.

"Somebody up at the league office might think things are interesting out here," Brown said. "I think the national media sees it that way. There are positive stories about Marvin, positive stories abut Palmer, positive stories about Chad. All this is good."

Tickets for those first six games are now available only through the purchase of season tickets. Single-game tickets remain available only for the back-to-back games in December against the Bills on the 19th and the Giants on the 26th, as well as for the pre-season games of Aug. 21 against the Super Bowl champion Patriots and Sept. 3 against the Colts.

Season tickets can be obtained through the Bengals Ticket Hot Line at 513-621-TDTD, or toll free at 866-621-TDTD, or at the Paul Brown Stadium ticket office off Elm Street. The single game tickets are being handled through Area TicketMaster Outlets and Ticketmaster.com: In Cincinnati at 513/562-4949, in Dayton at 937/228-2323, in Columbus at 614-431-3600, in Lexington at 859-281-6644 and in Louisville at 502/361-3100. Starting Friday, the single-game tickets are available at the Bengals' Hot Line.

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STILL TALKING:** Even as the Bengals tried to get 10 unsigned draft picks in the fold before Saturday's first two practices, they were still talking Tuesday about adding another veteran in former Cowboys tight end James Whalen and could old friend Adrian Ross be back in the mix?

Ross, cut by the Bengals Friday, said he is visiting Steelers and old coach Dick LeBeau Tuesday and Wednesday. Then he plans to visit a team he would only say is "back West," (Seattle?), and he said he hasn't ruled out coming back to Cincinnati. The Bengals could be interested in signing him again. But it would have to be at a price lower than his $1 million salary for '04. That couldn't happen when he became a backup to Nate Webster at middle linebacker instead of a starter.

But the Steelers look to be high on his radar. LeBeau helped lure Ross to Cincinnati as a rookie free agent out of Colorado State back in 1998, primarily because of how he fit into the 3-4 defense that the Steelers play now and the Bengals haven't since the middle of 1999.

"That's the reason I chose Cincinnati," Ross said. "I loved what LeBeau did with the Steelers' linebackers like Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene."

The agent for Whalen said his client has heard from the Bengals and four others since his release Tuesday from a Dallas club that is bringing in a new set of tight ends. Whalen, 26, has 17 catches for 152 yards in three seasons. All came in 2002, when former Bengals heads coach Bruce Coslet was the Cowboys offensive coordinator and Greg Seamon was the tight ends coach. Both are now in the Bengals personnel department.

"Yes, they have called and we hope to have something (with one of the five teams) within 24 to 48 hours," said agent Alan Herman.

Another Coslet favorite from Dallas was released Tuesday, but don't look for the Bengals to claim quarterback Chad Hutchinson off waivers with his bulky one-year contract.

Some quick hits from the media luncheon:

Lewis released his depth chart in the media guide and there is nothing stunning. Bobbie Williams, a free agent from the Eagles, is No. 1 at right guard. Patrick Johnson, a wideout from the Redskins, is No. 1 at kick return. Cornerback Deltha O'Neal is No. 2 behind both Johnson and punt returner Peter Warrick.

Lewis also said Carson Palmer is going to play more than the average starting quarterback in the NFL, and he wants him to get used to (at least once) doing a two-minute drill at the end of the first half, and then coming out and loosening up for the second. He also indicated that his staff thinks they have a better chance at pulling off the big play with Palmer.

"Carson Palmer will be a better quarterback for us than the play we had a year ago," Lewis said. "He'll allow our offense to do better things."

Lewis said all players are healthy, although Warrick (knee), left tackle Levi Jones (knee), and left guard Eric Steinbach (elbow) are probably going to rest on some afternoons when they practice hard in the morning.

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MORE MARVIN:** The count is now 36 players gone from the Opening Day 2002 depth chart and who knows where Lewis is going to stop the vetting. The biggest name gone is the club's all-time rusher, Corey Dillon. There are just five players left from the defense. And, as far as Lewis is concerned, all "'the fence riders," seem to be gone.

"I don't put much stock in Xs and Os. Anybody can put stuff on a sheet," Lewis said. "How we can take these things and teach them to our guys, that is important. Knowing how important that is and guys taking that to heart.

"A year ago, we had some fence riders," Lewis said. "They weren't quite sure. You know that old axiom about the ants and the roaches. When you turn on the lights, the ants are going to keep working, and the roaches take off. We don't have any roaches left, so we're good to go. That's the difference. We have a group of guys that if you're not toeing the line, you're going to stand out."

Lewis also said the club's newest player, punter Eddie Johnson, is going to be evaluated when he arrives Friday. He recently underwent minor, non-football surgery, and it's believed he may not be ready for the first week or two of training camp. That doesn't make the derby with veteran incumbent Kyle Richardson and rookie free-agent Kyle Larson any easier for special teams coach Darrin Simmons to hash out.

"It's going to be hard, but we'll have ample time to see them," Simmons said. "The great thing about training camp is we've got evaluation time. I just have to be smart about how we go through it and getting each guy equal reps and making sure all three are in the same situation so you can get an accurate evaluation of the three.

"He was a good college punter two years ago coming out (2003)," Simmons said of Johnson. "Here's a guy that we as an organization thought pretty highly of. When you got the opportunity to take a look at somebody at least, take a look at them and see what they got."

Simmons said Johnson has impressive leg strength and is going to get the chance to kick off, but not at the expense of his punting.

BRAT ON PALMER: Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski figures Carson Palmer is going to get the same amount of snaps that Jon Kitna got when he was the starter at last year's training camp. The challenge is going to be doling out the snaps in the pre-season games behind his starting offensive line.

"You don't want your starting offensive line to play an inordinate amount of snaps in preseason just because you're trying to get the quarterback more snaps," Bratkowski said. "You don't want those guys getting worn down later in the year. That's the tricky part of making those decisions. You want to make sure he's protected and not going to take any unnecessary hits, and a lot of it may be dictated by who's hurt, or who can play on the line. That's why we really don't make that decision about playing a quarter, or a half until late, when we know who is available for how long."

Bratkowski puts the practice snaps at less than 80 percent, but Palmer is going to get more than half and Kitna pretty much the rest with rookies Casey Bramlet and Scott Rislov fighting for scraps.

"You can't give him every snap because you can't overthrow him and throw his arm out," Bratkowski said. "Whatever is prudent."

BROWN RESPONDS: For the first time, Bengals President Mike Brown spoke publicly Tuesday about the dueling lawsuits with Hamilton County by calling for the sides to sit down and reach an out-of-court accord. He also said the club's $30 million countersuit against the county filed Monday would not have happened if the $600 million taxpayer lawsuit that has been filed against the team hadn't. He also said a loss in court would be "ruinous."

"We had to file our claim or lose our claim," Brown said, referring to mandatory federal court requirements. "If we hadn't filed, then (opposing lawyer) Stan Chesley probably would have stepped in and said, 'They're gone. You can't bring them up.'

"We have to defend ourselves. We didn't start this fight," said Brown of a suit that has shared the stage with football matters in the front office. "It requires attention when you're sued for $600 million, which is certainly more than we have here. Yes, that will get your attention because it's ruinous if you lose the suit."

Hamilton County Commissioners are claiming the NFL used a monopoly to get taxpayer money for a new stadium. In the countersuit, the Bengals say the commissioners broke the 1997 stadium lease and a 2002 agreement to jointly defend an Internal Revenue Service claim costing the club $14 million. The club's $30 million countersuit is asking for that reimbursement, as well as $16 million relating to various stadium items in the lease.

Brown suggested Tuesday that the sides try to hammer out the problems the county has with the lease instead of what he calls the current "silliness."

"There are something like eight sets of proceedings that have spun out of this. Common pleas court. Federal courts, federal circuit courts, ethics commissions. You name it," Brown said.

"We should sit down and talk about the differences," Brown said. "It doesn't get you there when talking about it, as I am now, in the media. That does not get you there. They've done some of that, they've done a lot of that. It doesn't really get you there to file an action in court."

Brown hopes to avoid years of lawsuits with cooperation. He pointed to the club's gesture of paying the $14 million a few years ago as a "positive thing," because "we have a relationship with the county."

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