From punch line to pundits' wine

3-11-03, 11 p.m.

There is a national buzz about the Bengals, and for once it's not the pundits circling vulture-like in cyberspace over the club's carcass in free agency.

The Marvin Lewis Bengals are a topic. The Bengals are in. The Bengals are lead notes and bright items. Bengaldom is now Lewistown.

"The most interesting thing that has happened in the first couple of weeks of free agency is that these aren't your grandfather's Bengals," says Peter King, NFL senior writer for "Sports Illustrated." "These are pro active Bengals. These are Bengals going out and getting players who want to play for them. They aren't the Bengals where the big free-agent triumph was an over-the-hill Richmond Webb or a Michael Westbrook no one else on God's green earth wanted."

Your grandfather might have read King when he covered the Bengals back in the early '80s for "The Cincinnati Enquirer." He has been pretty rough on them ever since. So has a rookie quarterback King covered back then, Boomer Esiason, now one of the anchors of "The NFL Today," on CBS.

"There's an air of legitimacy and credibility," says Esiason, who also can't hide the fact he bleeds stripes. "I talked to Mike (Brown) a few weeks ago and he was like, 'Boomer, it hasn't worked for 12 years and it has to stop,' and I think he's taken big steps to change it."

There are no games to be won for six months, but new Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is winning the battle of public opinion among the pundits who report and shape the news of the NFL.

They won't make the final call until they see the wins and losses. And, when you've had a decade like Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy in the magazine aisle of the grocery, the pundits may be one of the places you have to begin.

"Some of the agents the Bengals have talked to actually have players saying, 'Get me to Cincinnati,'" says Len Pasquarelli of ESPN.com. "It's a remarkable turn of events in a short period of time. Already there is a feeling it's not business as usual."

If there is one criticism, it is that the Bengals chose not to franchise

linebacker Takeo Spikes in an effort to trade him. Instead, they got nothing for him when they chose not to match Buffalo's offer.

"They should have protected themselves by putting the big tag on," Esiason says. "It's hard to explain letting a guy go for nothing who is perceived as one of your best players. The bottom line is that is they must have thought Brian Simmons was the better player, or they felt they needed more players than just him."

When they designated Spikes last month, they apparently thought he was going to play for them, either for one year at $4.8 million, or by matching an offer. And if it had been management's call, it probably would have matched because it always has until Lewis arrived.

"It's easy to second guess them because the franchise tag is less than $1 million than the transition," Pasquarelli says. "But rather than second guess them for not going that way, their actions spoke louder than words. I give Marvin credit. Up until Buffalo made the offer, he had been going back and forth, but when it came time to make the call, he made it decisively and quickly. He's not going to have a guy there who doesn't really want to be and not buying into it."

Lewis' style has been a hit. Clark Judge of Fox Sports.com says the change of perception started with him.

"You hear people around the league talking about the moves they've made in free agency, but it started when they went out and got Marvin Lewis," Judge says. "It doesn't take much to turn it around in this league. When you've got a guy like Marvin Lewis who can attract players, it makes you think about the Rams. When he said we're going to move past Takeo Spikes, it reminded me what the Eagles did with Jeremiah Trotter last year."

King is also on the bandwagon: "For years, players have gotten away with saying they want to get out of there. You have that on every team, even the best ones. You're always going to have a small segment of guys who aren't happy, but not as many as you had there. But now Marvin is saying no more. He's been around good teams and he knows what it takes to have esprit de corps."

Pete Prisco, senior NFL writer for CBSsportsline.com: "It's pretty clear that Lewis has control and these are his moves and I think that is going to make them a better team. Obviously he's calling the shots."

Lewis has also received a key assist from his coaches, which is what Pasquarelli keeps hearing from his vast contacts in the agent community.

"Their players were not only impressed by Marvin, but the coaching staff he's assembled," Pasquarelli says. "The name I keep hear coming up is (defensive coordinator) Leslie Frazier. "Apparently not only is he a very good coach, but based on the early returns, he's also a terrific recruiter."

Prisco, who is networked into personnel departments across the league, says they are raving about the Bengals' pickups. Particularly left end Carl Powell.

"Best pickup in free agency so far. They stole him," Prisco says. "Then they got three top dogs (defensive tackle John Thornton, middle linebacker Kevin Hardy, cornerback Tory James) for the price of one. That really shows the perception is changing. Those are three good players and they didn't do crazy deals."

Judge is a big James' guy and insists the Raiders didn't want to get rid of him in a salary cap purge.

"This guy is a terrific pickup," Judge says. "People say that he played because (Phillip) Buchanon was hurt. But he started over Buchanon. He's very solid."

King likes the Thornton move.

"To me it says something that they go out and get a guy that half of America has no idea who John Thornton is," King says. "Yet, personnel people in the league know who he is and agree he is one of the up-and-coming lineman in the league."

Maybe they're not your grandfather's Bengals. But at least one of the pundits is hoping Lewis revives the good old days.

"It doesn't look like it from the outside because Mike didn't bring in the "football guy," Esiason says, "but the way this franchise runs has been impacted significantly by Marvin. That much you can see so far."

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