Gibson eyes June return

5-16-03, 3:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Oliver Gibson, miffed by the whispers of his weight and piqued by the rumblings of his roster status, is convinced he'll be back for next month's mandatory minicamp. Not only that, "there's no question in my mind,' that his repaired Achilles' tendon is going to be as good as new come the first day of training camp.

"It's going to be 100 percent and I'm going to be in better shape than I've ever been as a Bengal," Gibson said this week as he approaches the seven-month anniversary of surgery. "Just because the rehab forces you to be, plus because of the new (team conditioning) program."

If the surgery has repaired his torn Achilles', then the offseason changes have salved his burning frustration that seared a hole in his consistency last year and led to some costly penalties.

"Emotional stupidity," Gibson said. "I was reaching for straws, trying to make something happen, just tired of losing. But you can't fall apart."

Gibson, the anchor of the defensive line the past four seasons at tackle, turned 31 back in March and it's an age and injury that don't go well together. Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino was never the same moving side-to-side after tearing his Achilles at age 32.

But Gibson has the luxury of performing in a small area, such as Raiders defensive end Trace Armstrong. Armstrong blew out his Achilles at age 36 in 2001, and although he didn't approach his 2000 NFL sack leader form last year, he played better and better as the 2002 season unfolded and played well in the playoffs.

"I talked to him about it and he pretty much told me that you just have to work through it," Gibson said.

Gibson realizes it may take that kind of time to get back into the swing, but he also feels confident in the strength of his foot and he feels since June 1 is the 201st day since

his Nov. 11 surgery, the seventh-month mark is a huge milestone, and that there is no reason to wait anymore. But even though he has looked sharp in drills, (running, pushing the sled, footwork), he has yet to be cleared. Deep down, he knows he won't know how it will respond until the July 27 start of training camp.

Talk to people around the club and watch the sweat drip off him after each practice, and the word is he has attacked rehab diligently.

"Unfortunately, you can't duplicate lining up and beating a guy," Gibson said. "You really won't know until you put the pads on and try to rub off two 300-pounders. I got over (the questions) back in December. What's killing me now is the waiting around. It's frustrating."

But there are some who think not only has Gibson overcome the injury, but he has also found a new path.

"The guys who play well into their 30s are the guys who don't take any time off," said David Levine, Gibson's agent. "The Jerry Rices train all year long. In a funny way, I think this injury will actually prolong his career. He's seen the value of not taking time off, plus with the nutrition and diet that is part of the new program up there, I think it's going to be a positive for him."

Gibson is a big fan of the new Bengals' offseason program overseen by conditioning coaches Chip Morton and Kurtis Shultz. Enough so that Levine says Gibson has dropped coming to a personal trainer in South Florida. But Gibson said he wasn't crazy about the club wondering out loud after the surgery if he could come back because of his penchant for putting on weight in the offseason.

"I felt that was unfair because it put a mark on me," Gibson said. "That was two seasons ago and not last season, and I've never officially been overweight since I've been here. I've never been a steam-room guy, or done other things that people probably think I do. I don't cut weight. I'm either going to not lose it or lose it."

For the record, Gibson hasn't put on any. He said on Wednesday that he weighed 313 pounds, and he's trailing the defensive line at each practice, mirroring their work. The Bengals were concerned enough that they gave 26-year-old Titans tackle John Thornton $5 million back in March to play for Gibson while he takes it slow out of the gate. Gibson already sees himself being on the field less, but he wants to make sure he impresses the new coaches and he thinks he can excell even if he doesn't have the same amount of snaps.

"Anytime there's a new administration, you don't want there to be stereotypes," Gibson said. "I think they felt like this defense was sorry and that we performed poorly and you can't say much abut that because 2-14 is what it is. But by the same token, I'm a hell of a football player. Everybody has a clean slate. You have to fit in with what they want to do and if you don't, they run you off."

Gibson wants to do a better job of staying in the system this year, which is a good thing because new head coach Marvin Lewis has been pounding into them for the past month the value of not going outside the defense's parameters.

Gibson vows he won't be the same player that went down with the torn Achilles last Nov. 10 in Baltimore. If he's in better condition, he'll also be smarter. Gibson took heat for two plays last season, drawing an unsportsmanlike flag on the first play of the prime-time game in Atlanta, and jumping offsides in the last minute of the 30-24 loss to the Titans that prevented a Tennessee punt.

"It was stupid," said Gibson of the play in Atlanta, "because the guy hit me first and like an idiot, I reacted. You have to be smarter than that. (The play against the Titans) was brilliant, too. There are times I've watched the film and said, 'How stupid can I be?' Other times I've made a big play and I'm thinking, 'That's brilliant.' The bottom line is you can't do anything to hurt your team. You can't play outside the framework of the defense."

The height of Gibson's frustration came in the fourth quarter of a 27-20 loss to the Browns. He made a big play for a loss, but the players on the sidelines looked dead and Gibson bellowed something about how much he wanted to win. When linebacker Takeo Spikes approached him later about alienating teammates, Gibson thought about how destructive frustration can be. And when he saw Spikes "lose it in the locker room at halftime," once last season, he knew he wasn't alone.

"Everybody has their own way of channeling it," Gibson said.

Now Gibson is tuning into one channel. It looks like it's going be 24,7 and 365.

"At times last year, I played well and other times I was only a factor some times," he said. "But I'm not a sometimes player."

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