Gray-ing of Bengals

6-08-01, 5:25 P.M.

Call it the Gray-ing of the Bengals.

Carlton Gray, the newest Bengal, began to take exception.

"You keep reminding me," Gray said, "that I'm going to be 30. But I feel like I'm 27 after not playing very much the last few years."

Easy, now. No need to be defensive. Not here. Not in Cincinnati. Not these days, where suddenly it's OK to be thirtysomething.

Where it's in, man, to be born back in the Woodstock days instead of Studio 54.

"I think that having some older guys in the locker room helps in so many different ways," said Gray, who turns 30 in two weeks.

"Not only can they help guys as far as what goes on the field, but they can help settle younger players with what's going on off the field. That's a big part of any team."

LBJ stands for Let's Back Jackson. John Jackson, the backup left tackle, is the oldest player (36) on a team that now has five players born in LBJ's administration.

Hey, five is a lot when 32 were born under Jimmy Carter. The Gray signing gives the Bengals a dozen players who are 30 years or older.

Not exactly George Allen's Over the Hill Gang in Washington in 1971, when Gray and Tony McGee were born. But for this team, in this era, well, how many of them have played in both the Oakland and Roman coliseums?

But that's good, isn't it?

"Absolutely," said Jackson, the old man himself. "When I got here last year, these guys didn't have a clue about what this league is about. That guys will chew you up and spit you out and

still be their friend. These are the right moves. It's a veteran's league."

In the past four years, the Bengals' losing records were always accompanied by the tag line, "one of the three youngest teams in the NFL."

And young teams don't win. At least not last year. Take the AFC championship game. Baltimore, with 11 players with eight or more years experience, beat an Oakland team with 10 or more. The Giants won the NFC with just five, but faced a Vikings club that had nine, and seven with 10 or more years of experience.

Last season on Opening Day, the Bengals had four players with eight or more years of experience. They go to this training camp next month with 13.

Bengals President Mike Brown and head coach Dick LeBeau will tell you there has been no master plan regarding age. They are just looking for the best players, they say. But clearly more money is being spent on more experience. This year, the critics can't say what they've been saying the past few years: The Bengals saved money by going younger.

It's a long way from head coach Bruce Coslet's bitterness that flowed on 1999 Cutdown Day, when the release of outside linebacker James Francis left him with one player 30 or older. And that was guard Jay Leeuwenburg, just picked off the waiver wire.

Does it matter? The last Bengals' playoff team qualified for the 1990 post-season with eight players 30 and over.

"It wasn't just the starting players," said Boomer Esiason, who quarterbacked that team in his seventh season at age 29. "You had guys like Leo Barker and Ed Brady who were key pieces on special teams, important backup defensive players, and guys who were great in the locker room."

When Esiason returned to Cincinnati for his Final Farewell in 1997, the only other guy on that 3-8 offense who was in the league when the Bengals went to the '90 playoffs was the man snapping him the ball in center Darrick Brilz.

And Esiason believes his experience helped fuel that season's closing 4-1 rush.

"Older players tend to stabilize a team more. Older players can weather more," Esiason said. "You can never replace experience. I think I helped guys like a Corey Dillon or a Darnay Scott when they saw someone succeed; how it was done, and what would happen when you cared to prepare. They saw that I spent more time after practice, more times in the meetings."

Of course, the '90 team won in the era before free agency, when minimum salaries for four-year veterans didn't hamper a team's salary cap. But if the game's economics changed, the game's locker room didn't.

Jackson played on the Steelers' perennial playoff teams of the '90s and remembers the role chemistry played.

"We had the experience and that was a big part of our success," Jackson said. "But the big thing is that we had the same guys, the same veterans, year after year. That's where the Bengals have done a good job. They've gone out and signed guys (running back Corey Dillon, right tackle Willie Anderson, defensive tackle Oliver Gibson) that have kept the core together."

But those guys are happy with the complementary players who have been brought in. Such as 34-year-old left tackle Richmond Webb and 30-year-old fullback Lorenzo Neal.

"And Carlton Gray is a guy who has been on teams that have had winning records in the past," said cornerback Rodney Heath. "Now you've got guys who expect to win and have won. I mean, I remember watching Richmond Webb in junior high blocking for Dan Marino. A great player."

Gray may not have great numbers, but he's seen it all in the NFL of the '90s. He's been a high draft pick, a coveted free agent, a backup, and he's played in New York.

And he's looking to pass on his experience. He's mature enough now to wish he hadn't popped off on Colts coach Jim Mora about the Tyrone Poole trade before the 1998 season.

"I would have done it differently," Gray said. "If I could take it back, I would."

How much does that count under the cap?

Nothing. Because it's priceless in a locker room. < p="">Heath, a fellow Cincinnatian, rides Jackson about watching him on TV while he was in junior high school. It doesn't bother Jackson. He takes pride in the "Wisdom Corner," he has formed with Webb in the locker room.

"It's not so much their age, but it's what they've done," said quarterback Akili Smith. "They've brought in guys who are proven players. Who have done it in other places and have put them in key spots. Webb won with Miami. Neal has been to the Super Bowl. Jackson's been to the Super Bowl."

"That's what I love about football," Jackson said. "Al of a sudden you're 36 and you're a dinosaur."

But for a team that has eaten its young for so long, that's probably a pretty good way to go.

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