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Gates open to optimists

7-26-02, 3:05 p.m.

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ For the first time anyone can remember, the Bengals are all here on time to start a season.

And a visitor joined them Friday for the first practice here at Georgetown College. A guy who hasn't been around since 1990 or so. A chap with gray creeping up the sideburns and a paunch around the middle. A guy wearing a pair of those supersonic sunglasses from the '80s and a "SWAT Team," poster that featured Solomon Wilcots back when he was an assassin instead of an anchor.

And when he showed up, they didn't toss out the optimist on Interstate 75 like they would have the last four years if he came around wearing that No. 7 Boomer jersey.

In fact, it was nice to see the optimist around the Bengals again at the start of a season. Even if they did check his shoes at the gate after not recognizing him.

"What can our record be?" quarterback Jon Kitna asked rhetorically. "13-3. That's what it can be. We can do that. 13-3. If we don't go to the playoffs, it's a huge disappointment. You don't collect what we have in this locker room very often in this league. We have every piece that you need."

"We've got the players," said their best player, Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon. "What's the excuse going to be?"

The air snap, crackled and popped here Friday with expectation. The sudden signings of their top two draft picks the day before had been one of Bengals President Mike Brown's and daughter Katie Blackburn's finest hours. They, too, have grown weary of the excuses.

The club ditched its recent reserve about newfangled devices in rookie contracts and gave left tackle Levi Jones and free safety Lamont Thompson basically what they wanted so they could be here instead of sitting out while both sides talked about principle. They pursued free-agent veterans who have injury histories (once an absolute anathema) but can help now. Brown has been quoting George "The Future is Now," Allen as much as Paul Brown this week.

It better be now.

This is sudden-death, do-or-die, back-to-the-drawing board if not. This is the team Brown has built since 1998, which began in the rubble of Boomer Esiason's decision to go to TV. It's been four years with more distractions than a Bill Clinton administration and more arduous than a George W. news conference.

There are 22 players heading into the last year of their contract, including their two defensive leaders. No one will confirm it, but it's believed head coach Dick LeBeau is on the last year of his deal. The offense is in Year Two, the No. 9 defense returns every starter, and every rookie is in camp.

If they don't now, then when? And if they don't, it probably has to be ripped up again.

"I think you're right," said defensive captain Takeo Spikes. "I don't want to go through that again."

Who does? Not Willie Anderson,

the estimable right tackle who was a rookie in 1996 when the Bengals last finished .500.

"You don't know what's going to happen after this year," Anderson said. "Maybe this is it for Brian (Simmons) or Takeo. Maybe this is it for certain guys. The offense shouldn't go through the mistakes it went through last year when it was new. I see Mike trying to win, trying to change the way he does things. He's a businessman. I'm a businessman, too. He wants to get a return on his money. I can understand that. He's put out money to sign me and Corey and he's trying with Takeo and Brian."

They love to toss around the phrase "sense of urgency," in the NFL the way politicians fire out, "I'm one of you." But Kitna feels the heat coming from upstairs.

"When you get a new stadium, it sells itself for a few years," Kitna said. "But at some point, you've got to put (players) on the field who produce. I think that (management) is looking at it the same way. They've got the best running back in the league in his prime, the best fullback in the league, a solid offensive line that's been together for a few years, and a top 10 defense. Anytime you've got a good defense, you're in every game. I've never been on a team in seven years that had everybody in camp the first week, never mind the first day.

"We say it's not a distraction," Kitna said of holdouts. "But (the media) talks about it, we talk about it and then when it happens, you spend another day talking about it."

Anderson, who held out himself for three weeks his rookie year, was delighted to hear when he arrived Thursday Jones and Thompson were in the fold. He felt it gave the team a win before they even took a snap.

Even Jones' agent, Kenneth Zuckerman, said from Beverly Hills Thursday, "The Bengals just sent a message to their locker room and their fans that they're serious about going to the playoffs this year."

Dillon, who is 239 yards shy of becoming the Bengals' all-time leading rusher without playing on a winning team, found himself defending his club last month during an appearance on Fox's "The Best Damn Sports Show."

"They kept asking me how bad it is playing in Cincinnati and I kept telling them it's not as bad as everyone says," Dillon said. "I've lived it. I've been here. It's a good place to play. We're close to going over the top."

Of course, Dillon knows all about the perception versus reality theme that Shakespeare perfected way back when. He could title this season "Corey VI," as the former bad boy continues to make his mark in the record book and the community

"I'm the prime example," Dillon said. "When people keep writing, and writing and writing the same thing, that's all people see. If you take time to investigate it, I think you find the truth."

The truth is, the Bengals are better than they've been in years. And the hard truth is, it's now or never with this cast.

"Exactly," Anderson said. "I don't think any of us want to go back."

"I don't see," Dillon said, "why we can't have a winning season."

One thing about the optimist.

Slung overt his shoulder was a Super Bowl XVI duffel bag covered in garish early '80s pink.

The old guy is staying awhile.

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