Hot stove huddle

1-6-03, 9 p.m.

Happy New Year to all in Bengaldom, and it certainly is.

Major awards (Kitna). Runnerup to major awards (Marvin). No punch lines on Jay Leno and some nice lines on the playoff pre-game shows. And no living with Mel Kiper Jr.'s hairdresser for the next three months with the obscure 17th selection in the first round of the draft.

You could draft Howard Dean there, and then take Ben and Jerry in the second and third rounds and not get ripped. It's so nice, cozy, and low compared to the annual glare of the top 10.

But the bells are still tolling across the countryside for the Browns' loss, and the search parties are deployed trying to find Corey Dillon's left sock and Carson Palmer's right arm. Bengaldom is huddled up in its Bengals' parka, eagerly rubbing its hands over the hot stove of the offseason.

The first off-season installment of Hobson's Choice off e-mail: **

Mr. Hobson, I was wantig to ask what you think about moves for next year.
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Mr. Hobson, I was wantig to ask what you think about moves for next year. It looks as though Dillon won't be here so that will free up some of the salary cap and I see Kitna is willing to renegotiate. With that being said do you think there is a chance that the Bengals would consider picking up Warren Sapp and Champ Bailey? Do we have enough under the cap to even bring them here? That alone would shore up alot of our defense.

Tory James is a CB that can shut down just about any second receiver but has problems with the elite. If Bailey is here then just about anyones receivers would absolutley hate to have to play the Bengals. If Sapp is here being double teamed then that will free up Smith and company to blast away at the quarterback.

We don't have the 3 best linebackers but we do have 4 lbs that are more than above average. Simmons, Ross, and Hardy did a pretty good job but I think that if Sapp was here with Smith and 1 other rushing the qb on every play with 4 good lbs (doing a 3-4 defense) would shut down most of the runners in the league. Abdullah is the other lb since he is fast. 1/3rd of the game we could play a 4-3 defense to rest a linebacker and alternate the front 3 on the 3-4 side to keep the defense rested.

I think after having a year under Lewis the defense will be better no matter what, but this would be awesome. It all depends on if Lewis could get them here but from seeing how he brought on others last year where we was usually looked at like the plague from free agency we might have a chance with the way we did this year.

I think our offense with that kind of defense would be more than powerfull enough to win games whether it is Kitna or Palmer. We scored plenty this year we just couldn't keep the other team from scoring that one more than us. Thanks for you time. Chris in Middletown.**

CHRIS: It just doesn't look like getting that knock-out, limo-driven, Reggie White pickup (Champ Bailey, Chris McAlister, Warren Sapp) is going to happen this year. Not with just $12-13 million available under the cap and about 25 or so players still to sign. And not on the heels of signing a $50 million overall No. 1 pick that makes the cap groan.

But that doesn't mean Lewis can't pick and choose and add some very good players and improve the team like they did the last offseason. Yes, well-coached, no-name, reasonably-priced defenses can have the best record in football, can't they Mr. Belichick?

Lewis has already indicated he is going to do a nip-and-tuck job on the cap: "The cap has a lot of people in it that might not be in it. The cap is a floating number that changes every day."

Maybe that means they trade or release Dillon and save $1.3 million. Maybe they can re-negotiate with Kitna. Maybe they re-negotiate with big-ticket players they like whose contracts are up after '04 (defensive tackle Tony Williams, cornerbacks Jeff Burris and Artrell Hawkins) and better match the cap with their current roles. Maybe Lewis goes out and gets more solid winners that he or defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier know; guys that don't necessarily command mega bucks, but are huge upgrades on the field and in the locker room.

Whoever they get, forget a 3-4. Remember what Lewis said the week the 3-4 Texans came to town: "I like the 4-3. At the end of the game, you've got a bigger guy rushing over there against an offensive tackle. I like that match up." Don't look at Abdullah as a stop-gap. He is the kind of outside backer Lewis wants for this system: Light (225 pounds), but blur fast enough to cause turnovers.

We think they can trade Dillon. But will they? For all we know, they may love the idea of using CD and Rudi for 16 games. It wouldn't make much economic sense, but getting rid of Dillon leaves them thin and that's a spot you can't be thin. Remember when they had James Brooks and still drafted running backs in the second round three straight years? Ickey Woods, Eric Ball, Harold Green. **

I have 2 questions. 1) Is Marvin seriously considering keeping Corey around for next year? and 2) What are the changes to the uniforms? Is it just switching from white to black pants, or is there going to be an actually change in the design of the uniforms? Mitch**

MITCH: Thanks for your nice postscript. Marvin doesn't share his thoughts on Corey, but we're guessing after dealing with him like he was a live grenade from the first minicamp he missed to the uniform toss, Lewis has to be thinking about not having him back. But he'll also let Dillon know that the coach literally has him by his rights. He belongs to Lewis for two more years, and he's the guy who is ultimately going to decide Dillon's fate, and he's not tipping his hand.

We figure the new uniforms (unveiled around the draft like many teams?) are going to have a slightly new look along with the black pants because why would Lewis go to all the trouble of getting permission from the league to wear the black pants this past season? **

Geoff, 1) I don't understand the Bengals last 2 game plans. They seemed to drop the run too quickly. Also I thought they should have kept giving the rock to Dillon. He is a slashing, cutback type runner who should have done well against the Rams'

Also, he usually runs well against the Browns, but didn't get the carries. Your thoughts on my comments & who do you think they will keep between Dillon & Rudi? 2) What positions, & who if you know, are on the top of the Bengals lists? 3) Is it the defensive line, linebackers, or the coordination between them that needs to improve most to better stop the run? Thanks, Gary (in Bears land)**

GARY: You're preaching to the choir on this one. Given the noise of the Edward Jones Dome and the lack of size on the St. Louis front, and the Browns' horrendous numbers against the run, we would have made certain Kitna didn't throw more than 40 passes in the last two games combined. And if Dillon wants out, then we would have made him pound his way out with a combined 50 carries.

But they had their reasons and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is a true student of the game and isn't the kind of guy just throwing darts at the playbook to get to the next snap. The easiest thing to do as a fan and writer is to second-guess a play call, but here's a guy who creatively coordinated the most potent offense around here in years. And, in Brat's defense, the left side of the line the last four games was severely damaged with the injuries to guard Eric

Steinbach and tackle Levi Jones, and they never seemed to be able to string together two straight good runs. Plus, they got behind, and Brat had to throw at a certain point. Plus, we think it will benefit the running game when they decide to give it to one running back and not share the carries.

After Dillon tossed everything but his cookies into the stands after the Cleveland game, it would seem pretty clear to us he's not coming back and that Johnson is going to be the guy. But that has risks. The Bengals don't have a 20-25-carry-a-game guy behind Johnson if he couldn't play for an extended period. So do they draft a guy in the fourth round as his backup, or use the $1.3 million they save jettisoning Dillon for a veteran back? But what about putting that toward defensive help? And so on and so on. So you could see a scenario where they would want to keep him.

We think Lewis is great, the real Coach of the Year. But he wouldn't tell us if they needed soap in the men's room, never mind what he needs in the draft. He keeps it close to the vest, shall we say. But we can guess: cornerback, safety, linebacker, a center-guard type.

We think they like the defensive linemen they have, but you're right. Their fit with the linebackers in the running game seems to be a severe problem. But it wasn't an easy year for the backers, either, and Lewis is no doubt looking at it all. Middle linebacker Kevin Hardy and right outside linebacker Brian Simmons were pretty much playing new positions, and that may have been a factor in the run struggles.

**

will dillion get fined for throwing his uniform into the stands if so how much do you think it will cost him How does the Bengals cap situation look heading into the offseason? Will they have enough cap room to sign a shutdown cornerback (Woodson, Plummer, etc)?

RG Cincinnati**

RG: The NFL tells us Dillon didn't get fined for disrobing. So how can they fine Chad Johnson for dressing up his touchdowns? The team isn't saying if it fined Dillon. Charles Woodson is the kind of big-time player they probably can't get because of caponomics. Ahmed Plummer of Wyoming High, Ohio State, and the Niners would be an excellent pickup and an upgrade, and would be more cap manageable than a Woodson or McAlister. **

Talk about bittersweet--2-14 to 8-8 but what terrible losses--Arizona, Oakland, Buffalo, Cleveland--win those 4 against dreadful teams [Buffalo leads the pack at the back with 6 wins] and you can lose to Kansas City and Seattle and still win the division. Clearly, we have seen the last of Dillon--Houston and Oakland could use an arrogant, overpaid RB, but we can only hope we have done the same with Cantna. The two biggest disappointments this year were the failure to get Carson Palmer any experience and the total collapse of the defense. Hopefully Marvin will have time next year to oversee the defense--almost all of their free agent signees were defensive starters and they got worse as the year went along.

But the big mistake was not using Palmer--if you could learn pro football by watching, we already know who has seen more film, practices and games than anyone on this planet and we know his record of 12 losing seasons in a row. Don't cite me Steve McNair--he came from Alcorn State where he was drawing up plays in the dirt and the only time he ever saw a zone defense was in intermural basketball games. Carson Palmer came from 2 years in the system of the most sophisticated and best offensive coordinator in college football and my choice for Bratkowski's replacement--Norm Chow.

This is a 3 year plan and now we have already lost year one with Palmer. In my view, I wasn't looking to get blasted in the first round of the playoffs, I was looking to build to year three when we win 11 or 12 games a year with a budding all-pro at QB. Someone who does not run out of the pocket into sacks because he can't see over the lineman--someone who knows, like every high school quarterback does, that you can not take a sack with the clock running and no timeouts at the end of the half.

The high school math teacher living his dream just had his career year and they were 8-8. What a wasted year at QB**

WASTED: The big mistake would have been using Palmer. Maybe you could have taken a 3-13 season with a rookie quarterback and written it off to the umpteenth rebuilding season, but the franchise couldn't have easily survived it locally and nationally. Any math teacher would tell you a stadium that seats 65,000 isn't going to last long seating 43,544, the crowd at the 2002 home finale. Look, you make some excellent points, but you've got to see the big picture, and you really ought to credit Mike Brown for letting Marvin Lewis execute it.

We're not going to cite Steve McNair. We're going to cite Marvin, and what he had to do when he arrived.

He needed to get a team and a city believing again as quickly as possible. He had to emergency flush all the Carl-Pickens-Todd-Portune-Jay-Leno-jokes-Bengal-bashing-bad-karma down the drain as quickly as possible. He had to be a cross between Lombardi and Freud in the locker room. He had to let the frat house know that the locker room was no longer Animal House but Wall Street.

It wasn't business as usual; that the guys who have the best chance of helping the team are going to play no matter draft position or salary. He had to establish legitimacy and he couldn't do it if some guy was doing a bad imitation of David Klingler out there and waking up all the hollow echoes.

And, let's face it. Whether you're Ryan Leaf, Rick Mirer, Peyton Manning, or Drew Bledsoe, you're not going to look good that rookie year and your team won't win.

It wasn't a wasted year because the team learned to win again, and Kitna was a huge part of it on the field and in the locker room. No more jokes. No more being a pushover on the field and a layover in free agency. And, probably more important for Palmer, the people who are going to be around him got better. From Chad to Warrick to Levi Jones to Steinbach. Because they played in actual games that meant something instead of the usual November-December slop.

Maybe they flower a year later because Palmer is ready a year later. But Lewis doesn't get the air or water without having a first year like this one.

**

Geoff, love your columns and great information. He was running great! Why did he not get more carries? We've all heard him before say he'd rather flip burgers than be a Bengal and then sign a 5 year deal, so this new rant is nothing new. Do you really think anyone would give us anything in a trade for him or do you think he will not be a Bengal next year? Thanks for your insight, Linda Cincinnati Bengal Fan.**

LINDA: Thank you. We think they can get a starter or a first-day pick for Dillon for two reasons: He showed he can still play, and his salary for '04 ($3.3 million) and '05 ($3.9) isn't gross. A team can handle that. But, like we say, do they want to get rid of him without a backup for Johnson?

Dear Hobson, I want to know a couple of things. What will the Bengals get in a trade involving Corey Dillon? What position will the Bengals draft in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft? Champ Bailey has expressed his likeness of Marvin Lewis and would like to play here, will he sign with the Bengals for next season? Will Artrell Hawkins be with the Bengals next season? Thank you for answering my questions. Let's hope for a great season next year and GO BENGALS!
Sincerely, Alex

ALEX: All we know is a couple of things, and not any of the things you asked about. We predict they get a first day draft pick for Dillon, but we don't know if they'll keep him and go with two backs.

We predict they will draft a cornerback, safety, or linebacker with the 17th pick, but we don't know if there will be an offensive player there good enough to seduce them.

They won't be able to get Bailey because the Redskins will make him a franchise free agent and the Bengals won't be willing to part with the two first-round draft picks for compensation, or be able to fit him under the salary cap with Carson Palmer.

Hawkins has a good chance of being back with the Bengals, although he does have
only one year left on his deal that counts nearly $2 million against the cap, and he is no longer the starter that signed that deal. But he plays hard, he's a good third and fourth corner, and they have to decide what that is worth. His lack of tackling down the stretch is troubling because that's his strength. But, remember, he played on a bad knee. And, you have to like his toughness, his commitment, his speed, and Lewis does. You won't find a better guy. **

How soon and what do you think we can get for Dillon? The talk of Dallas and Washington During the season does it mean anything? Bob Wooster, Ohio.**

BOB: Figure the Dillon talk to heat up at the league meetings in March and to culminate, maybe, on Draft Day. One way (stays) or another (goes). And the talk means nothing because that's all it is so far. Talk. **

Geoff, Been a die hard bengals's fan since Iwas a kid in the mid eighties. For the first time in a long i me I can honestly say I'm excited about next year's prospects. I'm confidant in the teams improvement from this year to next. Though, I doubt it will be as marked as it was this year, I'm sure we'll be a very competitive team next year. Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis are on the same page, and, finally have the team moving in the right direction. In fact my biggest concern for the team next year has nothing to do with the team at all. I'm concerned about our crowd. I went to 3 NFL games this season, Bengals vs. Browns in Cleveland, Bengals vs. San Fran. in Cincy, and Bengals vs. Browns in Cincy.

I also live in Columbus and bleed scarlet and grey just as much as i do tiger stripes, and, I've been to quite a few Buckeye games over the years. I've seen what a stadium should be like when your playing at home. I saw it in Cleveland earlier this year, and, I've seen it many times in the shoe. But, I've never seen it in Cincy at PBS. At the San Fran game, my friend and I got yelled at by a fan seated behind us for standnig and making noise. We almost got into a fight over it. I couldn't believe it. That happened to the same friend and I once a Buckeyes game, and, the rest of the crowd jumped on the guy for yelling at us before we could even defend ourselves. They almost threw him out! It was great. But, that's the way Columbus is about thier Buckeyes...insane.

At the game this past Sunday, Joe and I were the only 2 guys on our feet in section 140 for most of the game. You know as well as I that game meant the playoffs for us. Yet, the whole stadium was deafeningly quiet. It's nnot fair to the guys on the field.

Marvin is handling business with the team on the field, but, it's up to us to provide that home field advantage, and, were failing our team miserably. Geoff, I think you and this web page have as good a chance as any to get our crowd back in the game, and, make homefield mean something again. Send out the call to all the loud and crazy Bengal fans. Lets make the jungle the jungle again.Thanks Geoff BJ Columbus, OH.**

BJ: We've sent out your message, but we have an inner faith and belief in Bengaldom, the most resilient and reliable fan base on the nine planets. We saw and heard the best crowds since the '90 playoff run and we think they will only get bigger, better, louder. **

Hi Geoff....

Well the season is over and all the fans are upset that the Bengals fell short of the playoff`s. Well I still think they had a very good year and brought back alot of attention to the team. They are on the right track to turning this team into a very good team.

I was just woundering what your thoughts are on what the teams needs to do player wise in the offseason. Im thinking they should get another O- Lineman maybe through the draft. Its also very plain to see they are going to need some more help on the Defence.

I know Jon Kitna had a great year and I stuck with him no matter how much people bashed him. But I think it`s time to see what Carson Palmer can do with this team. Just my thoughts, I wounder what you think or if you have heard anything.

Jimbo Ontario, Canada**

JIMBO: We think they go for a center-type, maybe a bit early (not with the first pick, but anytime after that) because while they have high regard for Rich Braham and would like him back, they also know he turns 34 next season

No question Kitna had a great year and if you like the underdog, you had to love it. But there's also no question they've got a huge amount of money invested in Palmer and you have to believe they won't keep him sitting. **

I've just read Willie Andersons comments regarding Corey Dillon. Willie should be commended for his candor. It seems like every time a reporter needs to find out what is going on with the Bengals they can get a straight answer from Anderson. My Question...how high on the Bengals shopping list is a big DT? Seems like we have a bunch of DEs playing out of postion as DTs. Jim.**

JIM: We think it's on the list, but we don't think it's above the secondary and linebackers. Remember, Lewis had his chance to get a Sam -Adams-anchor-type with Adams himself and went with the young, athletic, and slightly undersized John Thornton at 300 pounds. That's the kind of guy Lewis wants. We think they'll focus on the scheme rather than size to fix the problems against the run. **

jeff, first of all happy new year! thanks for all the great work you did this year with bengals.com. thank-you marvin lewis and to all the hard working bengals who made this a fun year(who would have thought 8-8?) and to all the fans that became the 12th man and brought back the jungle. goal next year sell out the season!!!

just a comment on the uniform change. i like the all black and they should stick with it, as long as they never and i mean never change the helmets. they are unigue and if i remember right, it was paul browns idea to go with the stripes on the helmets with that the helmets should never be messed with, thats the best part of the uniform and what sells!! also. do you think that the bengals will decorate the walls around the field i;e ravens,browns?? they need more marketing schemes! jeff, again,thank-you for all your hard work!! happy new year!! p.s. go to bengalsfanclub.com, click on pictures. then click on misc, scroll down click over and on the bottom is my bengals basement and bengals fridge. just thought you would enjoy! thank-you!! forever a bengals fan p e t e **

PETE: Thank you and a Happy New Year to you also. We think they are going to consider jazzing up the field some, but if you hold true to Paul Brown's principles, he always thought less was more. **

ouch ouch!! Not exactly the way you end a season but hey there is alot to build on and congrats to coach lewis for a definite turning season.

Now what do you suppose we do with kitna?? I mean he had his best season as a pro but comon, his mistakes really cost some games and he missed Chad a couple of times that could have been game changers yesterday. I like his leadership and knowledge but we have a 50 million dollar man still taking notes. This could get ugly..

And Im sure dillon wont be back, but what sort of effects does his salary have on our cap?? I really hate to see him go but the team was right his attitude could tear this team apart. I know coach lewis is already working on finding what the team needs, but just a guess will it be safeties or will it be corners?? Just some mild questions thats all. And if the team is reading this DONT BE TO DISSAPPOINTED, YOU HAD A GREAT SEASON AND WE ARE NO LONGER AT THE BOTTOM, NEXT YEAR WE ELEVATE TO THE TOP. GO BENGALS**

ELEVATE: With Lewis already being mum on the QB situation, it sounds like they are already looking at ways to ease in Palmer at minicamp and training camp, and get him ready at some point in '04. Cornerback or safety? How about both? We think the deciding factor in the loss to the Ravens wasn't up front, but in the back.

The Ravens' secondary took away the Bengals' best player (Chad Johnson) while the Bengals' secondary turned quarterback Anthony Wright into the Ravens' best player on third down. To be fair, the Bengals were working with a decimated secondary that day because of illness and had bad field position because of the offense's turnovers. But the Ravens are a good example of how games are won back there. They stopped Johnson, while the Bengals allowed five 100-yard games in the last six weeks. And when the Bengals' secondary was healthy and intact, remember how it kept coming up with saving fourth-quarter plays in Cleveland and here against Houston and Seattle?

I would love to see the Bengals step up to the pump and sign Warren Sapp. His leadership could be invaluable on defense and he has proven himself

No question. But from a reality standpoint, the Bengals' salary cap couldn't take it without some massive surgery. Sapp would have to be real good because they could only afford to line up with about seven other guys on defense with him.

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