4-04-01, 6:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Artrell Hawkins has given up his cell phone, turned off his pager, and shut down his answering machine in a resolute stand against the distractions of people wanting every piece of him.
So it's not hard to believe the Bengals couldn't find their cornerback this week to finalize his one-year tender offer for a three-year restricted free agent of $512,000. When he suddenly appeared Wednesday to sign the contract at Paul Brown Stadium, his shirt and tie seemed to symbolize his fresh approach that marked his encouraging play at the end of last season.
With the arrival of a Mark Duffner-type holler guy in Kevin Coyle who will have the luxury secondary coach Ray Horton didn't and coach only cornerbacks, as well as a murky situation on the depth chart, Hawkins and Bengals insiders like director of pro/college personnel Jim Lippincott sense an opening for the rejuvenation of his career.
Among Hawkins, Rodney Heath, Charles Fisher and rookies Mark Roman and Robert Bean, there is no clear-cut starter in the NFL's most maligned secondary this side of the Metrodome. With the Bengals in the hunt for a veteran corner in free agency, the club has been talking to Tom Carter about possibly re-signing at a new low rate after jettisoning his $2.4 million salary last month.
"I'm not the highest paid cornerback on this team. Not even close," Hawkins said. "It's not a multi-year deal, but half a million dollars is still half a million dollars. That's almost half a million dollars more than most people make working nine to five 300 days a year."
Hawkins admits he wouldn't have had that attitude
at the beginning of last season. Not with a global chip on his shoulder.
"It wasn't really directed at anyone," Hawkins said. "Coming into the season they were talking about replacing me. You take all that stuff personally when you have the experience. The mistake I made was taking it personal. Then I started pushing too hard. I really stood in the same place. I didn't go anywhere. I took a couple of steps backward. You can't operate like that."
If he's not the highest paid cornerback (he's behind Roman's $710,000 average, Heath's $700,000 and Fisher's $677,600), then he certainly is the most vilified.
The boos won't let him forget he hasn't come near his expectations when he was drafted in the second round out of the University of Cincinnati in 1998. Or last year's benching after the fourth game.
But now that he's 25 and his son is 11 months old, Hawkins says the Bengals will see a different player. Maybe because he's a different person.
"I'm at the point in my career, even in my life, I'm being accountable and being a man," Hawkins said. "I see things differently. Never mind from three years ago, but at the beginning of last season. A lot of it has to do with my son. When you have kids, you think about how you want the future to be, what kind of lifestyle you want and what you want your kids to do."
After his benching, Hawkins didn't shrivel up and blow away. He used his speed and tackling courage to excel on special teams. He's looking to ride it into minicamp next month.
"My thing is I want to come in and regain the confidence of the players around me. Regain the confidence of the coaches, too," Hawkins said. "I'm not going to say I'm out (of the mix as a starter) and I'm not going to say I'm the man, either. I think I finished the year on a good note and there's a lot of room for improvement."
Coyle arrived from Fresno State this season after serving stints under Duffner at Holy Cross and Maryland, and any resemblance between him and the Bengals defensive coordinator isn't purely coincidental. Hawkins is pleased with the few film sessions and technique drills he's had with Coyle.
"He'll be able to get down and dirty with just the corners 24 hours a day, so that's good," Hawkins said. "He's kind of right out of the mold of Mark Duffner. He pushes you. He expects you to get better constantly and that's the kind of person we need. We're getting there, but we're still young. You need someone who's going to push you and make you do things and teach you, I think he's a good teacher."
Now that there is no cell phone buzzing and pager beeping, Hawkins thinks he's "rid of all the junk," that has taken his mind off things.
There was no question he would take the tender offer for a restricted free agent. He knew he wasn't in position to get an offer from another team (it would have to give up a second-round pick) or secure any kind of a long-term deal from the Bengals above the minimum.
Hawkins knows if he plays well, the Bengals will approach him during the season about a contract extension. If he doesn't. . .
"We'll see," Hawkins said. "I like the idea of the one-year deal and then we'll go from there."
For now, that would be under the "distraction," category.