7-29-03, 7:55 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Marvin Lewis' first training camp practice as a head coach slid under the radar Monday when it got swallowed by the cable news crawl.
The Reds terminated their braintrust, Bob Hope died, and Corey Dillon didn't try to stiff-arm Delta Airlines security.
"That's the way it's supposed to be," Lewis said of the avalanche of news. "We're going to be quiet assassins."
But you could definitely hear the snap, crackle, and pop of a regime change Tuesday morning and the first practice in full pads, complete with a scuffle on the first play between right guard Matt O'Dwyer and middle linebacker Kevin Hardy.
Lewis has told his team he no longer wants them driving to the locker room, has added about 15 minutes to the day's long practice, and covets those old NFL training camps where the team dorms up together miles away instead of holing up in a downtown hotel at home. He caught their attention again Tuesday on the first snap of team action in the morning workout.
"This is live," Lewis told them, and even Hardy, a veteran of Tom Coughlin's grinding gulags in Jacksonville, was a bit taken aback.
"He hadn't told us we were going to have a live drill. He surprised us. It's new to me," Hardy said. "I could see it in some of the guys' eyes. Everybody was surprised, but why not? Why put it off until Thursday or Friday? Let's go."
Hardy, who helped the Jaguars to two AFC title games, signed up as a free agent on a team that had been ripped around the league for being softer than a P&G shower product. But on Tuesday, Hardy said, "I guarantee you nobody in the league had a harder practice than we did today."
Usually, the defense didn't take anybody down to the ground until the intrasquad scrimmage, which used to be a week into camp. First snap of the third practice and six-year veteran Artrell Hawkins isn't too surprised it was the most intense practice at the earliest time in his career because it's a "tougher team, tougher camp, tougher coaches, tougher everything."
Just like Hardy and O'Dwyer screaming at each other about holding, this was no accident.
"We've got to send a message. We're going to play aggressive, tough and be smart and prudent about it," Lewis said. "But I think it's a good thing to do. Defensive guys don't get chance to tackle live very often, and it makes the backs begin to carry their pads down, and get used to being taken down. We wanted to do it on the first day."
So there were Hardy and O'Dwyer going at it and right tackle Willie Anderson thinking, "it was like a Cincinnati-Jacksonville game because Kevin and Matt always went at it."
Lewis then stopped the practice and told them there is going to be holding, there is going to be tangled feet, and if there's a fight every play, they won't get anything done.
"The linebacker said he was holding and the guard said he was holding and they were probably both right and both wrong," Lewis said.
Hardy, a former Pro Bowler, showed why Lewis thinks he's a solid leader as he cackled and romped sideline-to-sideline.
"That's what I'm used to," said Hardy of the intensity. "In Jacksonville, that's how we used to practice. The first few years in '96 and '97, Coughlin had us out there in full pads every morning. It's part of the game. You have to start it like that and keep it going because on Sept. 7 you just can't turn on the switch."
Of course, that's the date of the opener against Denver at Paul Brown Stadium and everyone knows what happened last season in the Sept. 8 opener against San Diego on the same spot. The Bengals couldn't flip the switch and got outconditioned in a wheezing 34-6 blowout that symbolized an ill-prepared season of 2-14.
"People have said we took a few games to play ourselves into football shape," said center Mike Goff. "I can tell you that isn't going to be the case this year."
Dave Lapham, the current Bengals' radio analyst who played on the club's offensive line for 18 seasons, has been a frequent critic of the team's practice habits. After viewing Monday's workout (including Anderson's svelte 337 pounds) and Lewis' ensuing news conference, Lapham wanted to play again.
"He's the kind of guy you want to play for. I want to play again," Lapham said. "He's the real deal. He does what he says. He means it.
"To a man, they're in better shape than they were last year. Willie looks as good as I've ever seen him. Physically, looking at the offensive and defensive lines, night and day. The receivers are making cuts at game speed instead of rounding them off. They're learning how to practice. You'd go around the league and see teams practice Friday before a game faster than the Bengals would on their biggest work days."
Then they're learning at top speed.
"Nobody could have practiced harder than us today," Hardy said. "Only if they did the bull ring drill where you put a guy in a circle he has to take turns with every guy. That's the only way."
Anderson has chalked up the speed of the practices to the off-season program.
"The shape guys are in is allowing us to play with that intensity," Anderson said. "In the past, coaches may have waited until we got in pads a little longer to get going. Now everybody is in shape and ready. I always wondered how do you have guys work on their tackling if you don't do it. You've got guys talking about Matt O'Dwyer and how good he looks and Matt is one of these guys who always looks good. That's a real tribute to the program."
So are Goff and Oliver Gibson, both 315-pound guys who came in at 303 pounds, and Goff admits he now has a different, sleeker body. And there is a guy like tight end Sean Brewer, who has cut nearly 10 points off his body fat percentage.
But the biggest change in the practice diet might be the brain food. Anderson says Lewis has added 40 minutes of teaching in two 20-minute chunks.
"What those teaching periods are going to do is bring us up to speed after having the six-week layoff," Anderson said. "In the old days, it was 'Just go out and run it.' We didn't talk and then we'd be in the middle of training camp changing techniques because certain things didn't work. Here you have a coach who is big on teaching and being smart."
Smart. And tough. Anderson laughed about the no-drive policy. Players used to swing over from the dorm to the locker room in their cars and trucks even though the meeting rooms/dining room, dorms and locker rooms are about a quarter of a mile apart at their farthest points.
"He likes that old-fashioned training camp," said Anderson after an old-fashioned practice.