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From one No. 1 to another

2-1-04, 11:15 a.m.


HOUSTON _ Twenty years after the Broncos traded to get the first pick in the NFL draft, the debates still rage.

Even as John Elway stepped to the lectern here Saturday to accept his first ballot election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there is no consensus.

Play a rookie quarterback right away like the Broncos did with Elway back in 1983? Or let him sit and watch? The only way a team can secure a long run as a contender is to draft a quarterback in the top five? Or put enough good people around him and just plain old-fashioned competency carries the day?

Elway, the last so-called franchise quarterback to win the Super Bowl five years ago, and Peyton Manning, another No. 1 pick destined for the Hall, are all for playing right away instead of sitting because it ended up working out for them.

But Titans quarterback Steve McNair skinned the cat the other way. He says if he didn't sit his first two years, maybe he wouldn't have been ready to share this year's NFL MVP honor with Manning.

There is no steel-belted formula. Only nine Super Bowl champions have been quarterbacked by overall No. 1 picks, with Elway doing it twice, Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw four times, and Dallas' Troy Aikman three. But Elway, No. 1 in '83, did have some advice for Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, No. 1 in '03, on his first day in the Hall of Fame.

The Bengals are now in the debate. They have opted to cast their salary-cap lot with Palmer and chose to bring him along slowly by giving him no snaps last season. That plan may screech into reverse as soon as this minicamp, but whatever happens, Elway offered Palmer this.

"Patience. There are going to be ups and downs," Elway said. "The quarterback situation is tough, walking in there, but he has to set his own expectations where he can achieve his goals. Don't worry about the expectations that others put on you. Worry about your own expectations."

Elway was able to joke Saturday about his first game, that '83 opener against Pittsburgh, and how he still remembers Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert drooling on the other side as the rookie went 1-for-8 with an interception before getting pulled at halftime.

"I was thinking about clicking my heels three times and calling for Anty Em to bring me back home," Elway said. "Give back the signing bonus. . .I was wondering what I had gotten myself into."

Then he got benched the next week, too, and eventually coach Dan Reeves put in Steve DeBerg for a few games to take pressure off the kid. But Elway wouldn't have had it any other way.

"I've thought about this many times," Elway said. "I wouldn't change any of the things the way it went for me. Obviously, you say some things as an immature kid you probably wish you hadn't said. But as a football player, and the way it was handled, I'm glad I was thrown in the fire.

"It taught me a lot early. I (learned) a lot earlier in the fire than sitting on the sidelines. I was happy the way it went. I sure wish I played better early, but you learn from the bad times and appreciate the good times."

Manning is the anti-Carson. He didn't miss a snap as a rookie, and he is now more than a casual observer because his brother, Mississippi's Eli Manning, is projected to be this draft's first pick six years after the Colts took Peyton No. 1 out of Tennessee. Peyton suffered through a typical 3-13 rookie season with 26 touchdown passes and 28 interceptions for a 71.2 passer rating, but followed it up by taking the Colts to the playoffs the next season with a 90.7 rating on 26 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

Manning appeared here this week with McNair when he beat him out for one of the FedEx Player of the Year awards. Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper also joined them on stage as another flip side.

"You've seen both sides work when you've seen Daunte basically sat his first year and then all a sudden he came on his second year and made the Pro Bowl," Manning said. "I played my whole rookie year, then had a good second year. You saw (the Jets' Chad) Pennington sit for two years.

"I like to play," Manning said. "I like to get in there and face the bullets and earn the respect of my teammates during that first year. Things may not always go great, but you're in there kind of battling it out with them. Every organization has its own philosophy. The key is if (Eli) doesn't play, to use that time on the sidelines to learn (so) you have to be ready every week."

The counterpoint is McNair, the third pick in the 1995 draft who didn't play in a game until November and didn't start one until December. Then he made four starts in his second season before becoming the starter in his third year.

"For two years I didn't get on the field," McNair said. "I think mentally, as long as Palmer is going out there and staying sharp mentally, it will help him. It will help his longevity as far becoming a great quarterback . This game is not about physical tools, this game is 99 percent mental.

"It helped me mentally," McNair said of sitting. "As far as reading defenses, studying film. I don't know if I would have the confidence because I was going to struggle for two years until they built team around me. I f I had gotten thrown out there, maybe I wouldn't be here right now. Maybe I'd be two years down the road."

Elway's road ended in Canton Saturday. But it wasn't a smooth one. He didn't win a Super Bowl until he had a Pro Bowl running back behind him in Terrell Davis, which bolsters the argument of a No. 1 QB does you no good if you don't surround him.

And Elway doesn't think he certified himself as legitimately good pro quarterback until his fourth season, and even then it took the stuff of legends with his 98-yard march into history and the Dawg Pound that put Denver into the Super Bowl and broke the heart of Northeast Ohio.

'' 'The Drive,' put me on the map," Elway said.

McNair thinks Palmer and the Bengals are headed north to the good times. Elway counsels it won't be an overnight trip.

"There'll be ups and downs," he said. "Learn from the bad times and appreciate the good."


JONES ARRESTED:** According to the Associated Press, Bengals left tackle Levi Jones was arrested in Houston early Monday after an altercation with police. Jones, 24, the club's first-round pick in 2002, was arrested at the Mercury Room for interfering with a police officer and attempting to take an officer's nightstick before being wrestled to the ground.

Jones had what the club thought was his break-through season and started all 16 games despite having arthroscopic knee surgery after the Dec. 7 game in Baltimore. The Bengals released a statement Monday saying they are aware of the report, are gathering first-hand information, and won't comment until the legal process plays out.


WYCHE WAITING:** ESPN reported Sunday that former Bengals coach Sam Wyche is close to being the quarterbacks coach of the Bills, which surprised Wyche a bit. Wyche, looking to get back into the NFL after ending his four-year term as head coach of the Buccaneers in 1995, hasn't heard anything about a done deal with Buffalo or any other of the teams with which he has spoken this offseason.

"Let people know that if they offer me a job, I'm going to pretty much take it because I really want to get back into coaching," Wyche said.

Wyche made a brief visit to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last week to show teams his heart condition has improved enough to stand up to the rigors of an NFL season. Medication has the "idiopathic cardiomyopathy,"

under control and it is no longer is a life-threatening issue that involves a transplant.

Actually, his voice may be causing more of a concern to teams as he continues to recover from a damaged larynx that has robbed his voice of volume. Wyche said new Bills head coach Mike Mularkey has expressed concern over his ability to project on the practice field, but the man who gave Mularkey his coaching start in the NFL in 1994, still thinks he can contribute as a teacher.

Wyche said he has also talked to new/old Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, his contemporary from the '80s, about a job, and although Gibbs talked about the trend of bringing in older coaches as desk-bound consultants, Wyche isn't interested.

"I'm a teacher. I want to teach. I think that's what coaching is all about and hopefully I can get the chance," Wyche said. "I understand why some might have a concern, but I feel I can do it."


SUPER CORNER:** This is a Super Bowl in which Bengals fans can take plenty of hope. From the Panthers' reversal of a 1-15 record two years ago to the presence of two former defensive coordinators as the game's head coaches, there is ample evidence that Cincinnati can get here, too.

Here's more.

Both teams have been the beneficiaries of play from rookie cornerbacks they didn't take in the first round, proving there is life in the secondary beyond the first 32 draft picks.

It not only shows how much a stingy defensive line and front seven can lift a secondary, but the last draft shows that coverage help isn't confined to the first round, or even the first day. The Bengals are expected to take a defensive lineman or cornerback with the 17th pick, but they won't stop going for defense after the first round.

Cincinnati had that same thought process when they went for Oregon State cornerback Dennis Weathersby as the first pick of the second day in the fourth round, and the Bengals also got surprisingly good play from a rookie corner in free-agent Terrell Roberts.

Sunday's centerpiece is Ricky Manning Jr., a third-round pick who has sparked the Panthers with four post-season interceptions. But the Patriots found plenty of help, too.

Second-rounder Eugene Wilson helped soothe the loss of Lawyer Milloy with a seamless move to starting safety, and fourth-rounder Asante Samuel has been solid on passing downs as evidenced by his breakup of Steve McNair's pass to Drew Bennett on the Titans' last play of New England's playoff victory.

"Ricky is a very aggressive, highly competitive guy who makes plays and has a short memory," said Panthers secondary coach Rod Perry this week. "A lot of people had concerns about his height and weight, but once you get off that, he's got the intangibles you're looking for in a NFL corner."

The 6-1, 204-pound Weathersby has first-round size and speed and fits the Bengals' desire for size at the position. But his development was slowed by a pre-draft gunshot wound that not only put him behind his draft mates, but also Roberts, his college teammate.

Roberts didn't get drafted because he's 5-9, but the Bengals signed him and played him because they have a similar philosophy to the one the Patriots used when they took the 5-10, 185-pound Samuel and the Panthers took the 5-8, 185-pound Manning.

"We understand the value of the (scouting) combine and the value of testing," said Patriots vice president for player personnel Scott Pioli. "But we know that you don't line up in shorts and sneakers and run around turf on Sunday.

"Asante has some savvy and ball instincts," Pioli said. "He may not have pure speed, but he's got playing speed. Good reactionary speed. He sees the field, sees the quarterback, sees his receivers, and is able to react rather than a lot of guys who run a 4.3 but can't see the ball."

It's the same idea when the Panthers went for Manning with the 82nd pick. Carolina said they had Manning targeted and traded with Denver to get him.

Perry actually knew Manning before he even decided to go to UCLA because they're from the same hometown and Manning's high school coach was Perry's workout partner when he played in the NFL, so he knew all about the intangibles.

But he thinks what helped Manning the most was the Panthers' decision to break him in slowly as a nickel back, and then when he had to play because of injuries in November and December, he was ready and isn't giving up the job.

"That way he could learn the defenses in a no-pressure situation," Perry said. "Now, later in the year, he's got some ability to understand what he's doing and he's showing he can play against some of those guys. I think this is the situation that worked out best for him. (By the time) he got an opportunity, he took advantage of it."

The Bengals considered Wilson with the 33rd pick, three spots before he went, and Samuel as they went into the second day. But with guard Eric Steinbach slipping out of the first round and Weathersby out of the first day, they did the no-brainers and went for the guys with first-round tools.

The Bengals are excited about what they can get out of Weathersby now that he will have a full offseason of football and conditioning before training camp. Indeed, they may have essentially what amounts to first-round corners from the past two drafts when they line up for May minicamp.

But, this Super Bowl shows you can get guys later. Like Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, Pioli and Patriots coach Bill Belichick stress football smarts in prospects, as well as the ability to adapt to what the staff demands. In fact, Lewis and Pioli bumped into each other at the airport in Houston this week and Lewis was happy to hear that their clubs seemed to be on the same wavelength when it comes to philosophy and evaluating players from the past draft.

"If we bring in a player who's not very smart, he's going to have a very difficult lasting in our environment," Pioli said. "If I bring in players who are high maintenance, he'll have a difficult time lasting in our system."

Pioli points to three factors that helped his rookie corners through and countered the physical limitations: The people picking them knew how they would fit, the combination of coaching on the field and in the weight room prepared them, and veteran leadership at the position taught them how to study defense in the pros.

But left unsaid is how a stingy run defense can help defensive backs. It's no coincidence that the Patriots finished fourth against the run and the Panthers 11th, and that the Panthers' defensive line had the second most sacks in the league by unit, and the Patriots had the fifth total sacks. All that is going to ease any rookie cornerback's transition.

Like any undersized corner, Manning doesn't understand why the scouts were so down on his height. He says NFL receivers aren't all as big as Randy Moss and points to two receivers in his own division in the 6-0 Rams tandem of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.

"Look at the receivers in this game," Manning said. "(The Panthers) Steve Smith is probably the best one. Who is 6-4?"

Nobody and Smith is 5-9. But height and strength are still a big factor in the passing game, which is why the scouts care. Carolina's Muhsin Muhammad is 6-2, 217 pounds. Yes, the Pats only have one 6-footer in the 6-0 David Givens. But they are strong and physical and Manning is still giving up inches.

Which is why it's nice to have a front line with 32.5 sacks.

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