For starters, it's about winning

7-19-03, 1 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The stat stuns Marvin Lewis. But it doesn't discourage him.

Despite the 17-74 record in September and October that has blown up the past 12 Bengals' seasons, Lewis believes his team is going to become a winner again.

"Yes, we'll win. Marvin won't win. We'll win," Lewis said Friday. "This is going to be a winning franchise. It's going to be fun."

Lewis returned to Paul Brown Stadium Friday from vacation to continue prepping for the opening of his first training camp July 27 at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky. The NFL consensus is that he has revived the franchise, but he knows the off-season karma must translate into regular-season victories. He thinks they'll come, but he won't put a number on it.

"I don't know what that means," said Lewis of his winning pledge. "I just know what kind of energy we're going to bring every day to play football. We're going to continue to flourish."

One of the keys to a quick start is getting top rookies signed in time for camp, and Lewis doesn't anticipate problems with four unsigned potential down-the-road 2003 starters in second-rounder Eric Steinbach (left guard), third-rounder (Kelley Washington (wide receiver), and fourth-rounders Dennis Weathersby (cornerback) and fullback Jeremi Johnson. The Bengals hope they have Johnson in their sights early next week since the players selected before and after him in the draft are in the fold.

But then, the Bengals had everyone signed on time last year and still started 0-7.

"You're like that for a reason, which is scary," Lewis said. "I don't know what it is. It's hard to tell, I just know it's got to change."

Lewis has plenty of company when it comes to being unable to explain the poor starts that have bridged not only 12 seasons and two stadiums, but three kickers (Jim Breech, Doug Pelfrey, Neil Rackers), four head coaches (Sam Wyche, Dave Shula, Bruce Coslet, Dick LeBeau), seven Opening Day quarterbacks (Boomer Esiason, David Klingler, Jeff Blake, Neil O'Donnell, Akili Smith, Jon Kitna, Gus Frerotte), and three 1,000-yard receivers in Carl Pickens, Darnay Scott, and Chad Johnson.

Maybe the reasons for the bad starts are a combination of elements such as the old off-season conditioning program, the perpetual negativity that descends once the losing starts, and the quarterback derbies that haunted the training camps of 1998, 2001, and 2002, as well as Akili Smith's 1999 holdout.

Maybe. . .

"For it to be that significant, it's got to be a mix of everything," Lewis said. "Obviously if it wasn't just one thing, it would probably be easier to identify."

But Lewis has identified the importance of September and October.

"It's a long season, but if you want to make the impact you're looking to make in November and December, the first two months are obviously key," Lewis said. "It's important to get off to a good, solid start.

"We're trying to win the division and make the playoffs, and you can't worry about what you're going to do in October," he said. "We're going to work smart. We're taking it one game at a time, one week at a time. First it's the Denver Broncos in Week 1. Then it's the next game in Week 2."

That next game is a trip to play the AFC champion Raiders on a West Coast where they haven't won since 1990. Then they come back home to play the AFC Central champion Steelers. Then they leave for the next two games, where they have the NFL's worst road record since 1992, to play the playoff Browns and a Bills' team that beat them by three touchdowns in last season's finale.

For openers, that's tough. But Lewis doesn't think the tough schedule translates into another tough start.

"I don't think you can do that in the NFL anymore," Lewis said. "Teams are fluid and change so much, I just don't think you can pick up a schedule and say what looks to be a tough stretch right now. At the end of the season, that may have been the best stretch you had."

Steinbach, the draft's 33rd pick, has been penciled in as the training camp starter at left guard, but Lewis said that won't weaken the club's position in negotiations.

"You'd like it all to happen and fall into place right away, but sometimes it doesn't, but you go forward and move on," Lewis said. "One person is not going to make or break this football team. Maybe some people have hung on to (that) in the past. This is a team of 53 guys that's going to start off with 82 in training camp, and we're going to have guys come and go during that period. That's the way it's going to be."

But Lewis is confident Steinbach is going to get in on time.

"Eric wants to be here, we want him here," Lewis said. "He wants to get it done. We want to get it done."

Jack Bechta, Steinbach's agent, has been talking with the Bengals for more than a month and remains optimistic his client will be at Georgetown with everyone else. He says the eight days left until camp opens "is an eternity," for getting a deal done in the second round.

The big question is if the Bengals agree to a deal with voidable years with a second-round pick for the first time ever. It usually happens when a team's first pick is the No. 1 pick in the draft and is a quarterback taking up the majority of the rookie pool money, such as is the case this year with Carson Palmer. The voidable camp got a boost when the Chiefs gave their second-rounder such a deal even though they picked in mid-round.

Bechta has had a face-to-face meeting with Bengals vice president Paul Brown, but the agents for Washington don't think they need to visit yet to finish off a deal. They said Friday they are confident Washington is also going to sign on time and that phone conversations have served well enough for negotiations.

The agents for Weathersby and Johnson couldn't be reached Friday. The conventional wisdom is that the last thing Weathersby needs is a holdout as he recovers from Easter's gunshot wound, and Johnson should be close to done because those drafted around him have signed.

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