6-15-04, 8 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Skip Hicks knows the critics nay say his age, which is the big three oh in October. Hicks prefers to use the odometer instead of the calendar to gauge what he has left in a career still looking to get off the ground.
"It depends on who you talk to," says Hicks, when asked if this is his last shot to play in the NFL. "They figure the age difference. I go on how many miles I have on my body. To me, I figure I'm still young. I don't have the wear and tear on my body."
The body may have been OK Tuesday, but it was the mind that was worn and torn by jet lag after he put on some heavy mileage flying over from Europe. Hicks officially entered the Bengals' roster fray at running back in an on-field coaching session just 72 hours after lining up for the Frankfurt Galaxy in NFL Europe's World Bowl.
NFL Europe quarterbacks make it. Offensive linemen. Defensive linemen. But 29-year-old running backs?
But let it be known that Brian Lavell Hicks isn't into soppy, movie-of-the-week comeback stories.
"If I thought I was a long-shot, I wouldn't be here," Hicks says. "I didn't come here to hope to make the team. I came here to make the team."
Dave Lapham, the Bengals radio analyst, saw Hicks up close in Saturday's 30-24 loss to Berlin. Lapham called the game on radio (Hicks ended up getting just eight carries when Frankfurt fell behind 30-10) and his call now on Hicks is he's got a shot to make it after not carrying the ball in a NFL game since 2001. He scored twice as many touchdowns as anybody else in Europe and was either one or two in rushing during the season.
"Between him and Kenny Watson," says Lapham of a four-man roster spot that already has three in Rudi Johnson, Chris Perry, and Jeremi Johnson. "He wanted to show he's durable and he carried the ball 25 or more times in almost half his games. I think he got a little tired at the end. I think he hit a wall. He wasn't getting in and out of the hole as quick with his feet like he was earlier in the season.
"But he showed he can make the big play. He's fast," says Lapham, who saw on tape his 72-yard touchdown off a screen pass and a 54-yard run.
"It's a quarterback's league, really. It's like Triple A in baseball. Guys who have had good college careers. Guys who are about a half a step slow, not as big, not quite there. But he certainly showed he's got a chance to play in the NFL again."
Hicks, who has only 53 more NFL carries than the Bengals 24-year-old starting running back Rudi Johnson, had his best season in his first season. The Redskins took him out of UCLA in the 1998 third round and he had a career-high 433 yards on 122 carries. Bengals receivers coach Hue Jackson was the Redskins running backs coach when they decided to let him go after the 2000 season.
"We wanted a fit for doing something specific as the backup tailback (behind Stephen Davis) at the time and it just didn't work out for him," Jackson says. "We were looking for more of a pounder than the speed, but what he brings to our backfield is that. He's extremely fast. Jim Anderson has done a great job there. You look at the tape and every guy brings a little something different to the table. He's very fast and Skip Hicks could always catch."
Anderson, the running backs coach, has guys who can pound it between the tackles (Johnson and Watson), guys who can get around the edge and score from anywhere on the field (Johnson, Hicks, and free- agent Herbert Goodman), and guys like Chris Perry who can do a little bit of everything.
"I see myself as an all-around back," Hicks says. "Not just a third-down back or a speed back. If I'm out, it's only because I'm taking a blow."
He says he felt good Tuesday. He didn't feel he was behind the other players physically because he's off a 13-week stretch. He says mentally about the Bengals' scheme, "I have to forget everything I learned in Europe," but he's pleased with how his 6-0, 230-pound body is responding.
"(Playing in Europe) is good for two things," he says. "I'm already in football shape, so I felt OK today. I've been doing it for 13 weeks. And now I want have to go through some of the things I used to have to go through in training camp. I felt the pounding the first five or six games, then my body caught up to it and I actually felt stronger at the end."
Hicks hasn't survived a training camp long enough to make an Opening Day roster with Chicago (2001), Tennessee (2002) or Carolina (2003). Which is why Jackson thinks playing in Europe was the perfect thing for him.
"It restores your confidence," says Jackson, USC's offensive coordinator when the Trojans played Hicks' Bruins. "Skip was one of the top-rated running backs in the country at UCLA and he hasn't had the career I'm sure many anticipated, or he would have expected. It's nice to go back and find yourself. Get that feeling you had when you were a dominant player coming out of college and I'm pretty sure he felt pretty good about his performance over there."
Chad Hayes, the Galaxy tight end the Bengals signed Tuesday, just finished his second year in Europe Saturday. He had "a blast," playing with Hicks because of his age and ability.
"He's older than most guys over there and he's been around," Hayes says. "He's a great al-around back. He can pound it, when you're blocking on the edge, he gets there fast and he can pick up a blitz. He stood out over there."
Still, Saturday's loss was tough to take for a meal ticket that could gain just 19 yards.
"I've played in a lot of big games, but when you think about it, anybody in the world who thinks abut football probably watched some of that game," Hicks says. "It's a disappointment with something like 200 million people watching. I wish we could have run it more it. That happens. You get behind in a big game like that off the bat like we did and have to change our game plan. It was kind of disappointing because I feel I'm the type of guy, 'Just give me the ball, give me the ball, I want to make a play.' I felt like if I got the opportunity, I could help our team win."
Hicks' first impression of the Bengals' offense is that it has plenty of playmakers, "and they look crisp and fast." He may have bounced around, but he's been on good teams. During four of his stops, he was with teams that won division titles that particular season and he spent the last camp with the NFC champion Panthers.
"They have the same spirit here as those other teams," Hicks says of the Bengals. "I don't see why they shouldn't be successful."
Hicks spent a lot of time watching TV in Germany and he got a big kick watching the old Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence movie "Life," in German.
"Funny movie. I've seen it so many times that I know most of the words," Hicks says. "So I still understood what they were saying and I was able to learn how to say some words."
Hicks hopes life is just as good here.