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2-20-04, 2:20 p.m. Updated:
2-20-04, 8 p.m.


INDIANAPOLIS _ Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis stepped to the podium here in the media room at the NFL scouting combine and smiled.

"At least we're not first," Lewis said of last year's top pick in the draft.

But the Bengals still have two major franchise questions facing them worthy of the TV glare even though they're picking a thankfully obscure No. 17. And Lewis may have inadvertently answered them both with one statement he offered in a later session with the Cincinnati media.

Lewis says the national face of the Bengals has changed after they went 8-8 in his first season as head coach and it's no longer just of all-time rushing leader Corey Dillon and his trade demands. One of the visages on Lewis' collage is that No. 1 pick from last year, quarterback Carson Palmer.

"I said that last year," said Lewis of the Palmer pick. "We were going to draft a guy, whoever it was, I was assured that would be the guy the people of Cincinnati wherever they would travel would equate him with the Cincinnati Bengals. I think Chad (Johnson) has done an outstanding job in taking some of that. Rudi has taken some of that. That's what a football team is all about.

"If you look at the New England Patriots and you watch. It's Ty Law. It's (Tom) Brady. It's (Willie) McGinest. It's a number of different guys. It's (Adam) Vinatieri. That's what a football team that wins is all about. It's not one guy. It's a group of guys."

If that's not a good-bye to Dillon and a hello to Palmer's new era, what is? But it's all speculation now because Lewis fell just short of making ESPN when he didn't go ahead and name Palmer the starting quarterback over Jon Kitna.

Plus, he offered an olive branch of sorts to Dillon even though Lewis said he would listen to trade offers and had no comment when asked if the Bengals had approached other teams about trading him. He said the Bengals have not been approached by a team seeking Dillon in trade, which can't be executed until March 3.

"I definitely think I can handle our football team and that our football team can go forward with that behind them," Lewis said. "I don't think (it) seemed to bother the players. That's their guy. Players are going to be behind players. I'm sure guys would hope that he couldn't express himself that way. Players are going to be with players. I don't think it would for a problem for them."

One veteran offered a no comment Friday night on the subject of Dillon and another said if the players knew Dillon truly wanted to play in Cincinnati, then there wouldn't be a problem. If there is one guy who can smooth a dicey locker-room situation, it's Lewis. He proved it last season when the club went 6-4 after Dillon went public with his unhappiness.

Palmer's time may be dawning at the May minicamp, when Lewis wants the starter in place. Lewis outlined why Palmer is better prepared to play this year because of his and the team's position, but he won't go public yet and he apparently hasn't told the principals yet.

Offensive Pro Bowlers Willie Anderson and Chad Johnson offered their support of Lewis' decision Friday, while Palmer coolly eased back in California. Kitna couldn't be reached for comment. Anderson is convinced Palmer won't fail like Akili Smith did.

"I haven't talked to Coach Lewis in a long time," Palmer said Friday. "I'm not worried. It doesn't matter to me because I'm going into minicamp with the same mindset no matter what. I'm trying to win a competition whether I'm No. 1 or not."

As for other matters, Lewis sees the club's eight unrestricted free agents going into the market when the bidding opens March 3, linebackers Kevin Hardy and Brian Simmons could move back to their original positions outside and inside, respectively, and the agent for running back Rudi Johnson is still waiting to hear from the Bengals before his client goes into restricted free agency.

Lewis admitted that not playing a snap last year was far from ideal as the 31-year-old Kitna put up Pro Bowl numbers in his career year.

"Now we put ourselves two years behind maybe where we could be as a football team," Lewis said. "If you're standing here a year from now and have won a world's championship, you feel pretty good about it. I don't know if we can sit here right now and see through the tea leaves like that."

If Palmer is the man (and some players have felt he is ever since Lewis wouldn't name a starter right away after the season), neither is surrendering to the belief that a first-year quarterback is going to take his team below .500 with him. Lewis doesn't see it as an experiment.

"Whoever our quarterback is going to be, he's going to be our quarterback until he's causing us not to win football games.," Lewis said. "Just as it was last year. I'll make that clear to everyone involved. I don't want to have our football team go down that road because we're losing games because of one person. It's not fair to all of those other guys. Obviously, as coaches, you have to do things that guys can do successfully to keep you from losing. More importantly, you don't want to have one guy lead you down that path."

But Lewis doesn't think he's going to have a jelly-legged rookie if it's Palmer.

" I studied a lot of Michael Vick and how the Falcons had treated him his rookie year," Lewis said. "And it was good to do that. I'm confident we have a guy in Carson who is kind of a gym rat who loves football, who loves to spend the time, I think in that way he can make up the time quickly."

Anderson, the right tackle who has played the most games by a Bengal on the roster, is still looking for his first winning season and he's standing by his man.

"Whatever Coach Lewis does with the quarterback, fine with me," Anderson said. "Everything the guy has done has worked. Everything he's touched. So I'm right with him. Whatever he wants. If it's Carson, he's going to have good days and bad days, and the people around him are going to have to step up. I'm just going to worry about blocking my butt off to protect him."

Chad Johnson, Kitna's favorite receiver, is thinking the same thing.

"Doesn't matter who throws it," Johnson said. "I run and catch it. You have to trust in the organization. If Marvin and Mr. (Mike) Brown, Brat (offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski) think that's the move, then they know what they're doing. No big deal. Let's go play."

Or, as Simmons said, "That means the defense is just going to have to play better than last year, step it up, and help him out."

Lewis sketched out why it could be Palmer.

"I thought our team had a lot of confidence in Jon Kitna," Lewis said of last season. "To put an unknown in there would have been difficult. The players believed in Jon. Takeo (Spikes) was one of those guys. 'Coach, we don't need to draft a quarterback. Jon can win.' Corey, a number of guys, expressed that.

"Whoever that quarterback is going to be," Lewis said, "it's going to be a guy they can put a face on. A personality. A guy they have seen. Either way, it's no longer an unknown."

Lewis wants the quarterback announcement to have the same-under-the-radar feel as Chad Johnson's $26-million five-year extension. Lewis called it "probably the most significant move" ever done by the Bengals because Johnson had another year on his rookie deal and the money was so huge.

But it was low-profile because it came in the week leading up to the Bengals' upset of the unbeaten Chiefs. Lewis won't have a big game week to provide distraction for a decision that's going to set the tone for the next decade if it's Palmer. His only hope is to roll it out the Saturday Semifinals of NCAA basketball's Final Four, or Kentucky Derby Day, and it might get muted. But it will still be the loudest story of the week in town.

Yet everyone knows Kitna's outlook is going to go a long way in making the story die. Lewis says Kitna's class and Palmer's humility helps smooth such a traumatic decision. Kitna assured Lewis before and after last year's draft that he would be fine with a QB pick.

"Jon is a tremendous person. He played tremendously. He's a huge leader," Lewis said. "If he's the starting quarterback and you yank him out of the game, and how that is perceived (to the players) and if he's not the starting quarterback, it has an affect on our players. Our guys are going to have to deal with that at some point. And Jon is well aware of that."

Anderson, who lived and died (mostly died) through the Akili debacle, thinks Kitna is a major reason the past won't be repeated. He knows Smith didn't get a lot of tender loving care from veteran quarterbacks such as Jeff Blake.

"When you have a wonderful human being like Jon Kitna working with that guy, that helps him out so much," Anderson said. "Carson's got better coaching and the support of the veteran that Akili didn't have. He's not like Akili, getting thrown in that rookie year. He's been on the sidelines, he's gone over the same plays with the same coaches. And he was able to sit and watch a guy have a great season. Akili didn't have any of that stuff."

Whether the club is as united on the Dillon question is another matter. During the week leading up to the last game of the season and the Bengals still in the hunt for the AFC North Division title, Dillon continually said he wanted out. Then, after the elimination loss to the Browns, Dillon threw pieces of his uniform into the stands.

Anderson, who vaguely said after the season that the Bengals have to get rid of "some of the stink," still around, had no comment Friday. Lewis said it's wrong to imply Anderson meant Dillon.

"Something did stink," Lewis said, "when you finish the season like we did, something is wrong."

Linebacker Brian Simmons thinks it can work if Dillon buys in.

"I don't think it was a distraction this year because if it doesn't directly affect a player, I don't think guys think about it. But the players would have to know that he really wants to be here."

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