LeBeau narrows list

1-19-2001 BY GEOFF HOBSON

Chris Palmer and Akili Smith have a mutual admiration society thing going on.

Now the only question after Friday's interview at Paul Brown Stadium is if Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau is ready to join the club after interviewing Palmer for offensive coordinator.

An impressed LeBeau called Palmer, "one of my top people," and said the former Browns head coach will be in the club's "final considerations."

But LeBeau also didn't make him an offer. Which means Palmer is headed to Chicago Saturday to talk with Bears head coach Dick Jauron about the same position and that Steelers receivers coach Bob Bratkowski is still very much in LeBeau's mix.

LeBeau wouldn't divulge names, but speculation is Bratkowski is his other top candidate. Although Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy said he planned to interview Palmer, Palmer said he had no interview set with the Bucs.

Whoever, LeBeau is hoping to make the call early this upcoming week. So Palmer was most likely the Bengals' final interview.

That has some irony. Not only are the Jauron and Palmer families very close from their days as coordinators together in Jacksonville, but LeBeau has often said his best friend in the NFL is Jauron.

"Whatever Dick wants to do is fine," said Smith Friday from California. "I do know that Coach Palmer and I would have a great relationship. I think we already have one."

Two years ago, Palmer, then the rookie head coach of the expansion Cleveland Browns, got sold on Smith during a pre-draft workout that nearly sold the franchise on making Smith the No. 1 pick in the draft instead of Kentucky's Tim Couch.

That's how Smith became the Bengals' franchise quarterback. How he fell from grace is why the Bengals are seeking an offensive coordinator (read aerial guru) to rescue the league's lowest ranked passing attack.

And when Couch got hurt last year, that's how Palmer ended up interviewing here because he got fired despite coaching an expansion team for just two seasons.

During Palmer's 10-minute session with the Cincinnati media Friday, he made it clear he's still a big Smith fan and says the Bengals are "a blossoming," team.

"Until a quarterback's career is over, it's too soon to judge," said Palmer, alluding to Phil Simms' five-year journey to the NFL establishment with the Super Bowl Giants. "You just have to be patient and let them develop.

"Akili had an excellent arm, work habits, (he) won at Oregon, the ball came out of his hands with a great deal of velocity on it."

Although Palmer took heat for winning just five games in two seasons with the NFL's last-ranked offense this past season, Smith liked the spread formations and multiple receiver sets the Browns flashed.

Smith also liked what he saw Couch do when he went to the line of scrimmage. Smith said he was frustrated last season when the Bengals went with no audibles, which gives the quarterback the ability to change a pass play just before the snap.

"It looked like they gave Couch a lot of freedom at the line," Smith said. "It seemed like he was able to switch plays at the line. We had 'check with me,' in the run game at the line, and I think that's a reason why the running game was so successful because we checked into the best play. We need to be able to do that in the passing game."

If the Bengals are competing with the NFC Central Bears for Palmer's services, they've got one edge.

Asked how appealing it would be to play Cleveland twice a year, Palmer smiled and said, "Very."

LeBeau thinks the Bengals appeal to Palmer because

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of Smith, "but there are other factors involved, so we'll have to wait to see what happens."

Clearly, Palmer advocates what LeBeau seeks: A multiple offense that can spread the field with three-, four-, and five-receiver sets on any down out of any formation.

"Like to run the ball to win, like to throw it to score," said Palmer, when asked to describe his philosophy.

"Peter Warrick is very explosive. Darnay Scott, you hope he comes back from injury. Corey Dillon is as good as there is in the league. There's a lot of parts to the puzzle here."

Palmer said in today's NFL, one player can put a team over the top. He said Smith can be that player, but he's also seen players emerge from the draft to aid a Pro Bowl quarterback.

"When we took (Ohio State receiver) Terry Glenn at New England, he caught 90 balls as rookie and put us in the Super Bowl," Palmer said of the 1996 season. "He's the reason we got to the Super Bowl. We had pieces of the puzzle there, but (Glenn put it together)."

Asked if the Bengals should draft a quarterback two years after taking Smith with the third pick, Palmer said, "We haven't gone that far. It's a good question, though."

LeBeau and Palmer apparently fired out some pretty good questions during their six-hour day together. Formations, motivation, and how Palmer evaluated Smith two years ago were just some of the topics.

Palmer, the first head coach to ever win a game at Paul Brown Stadium in the building opener this past Sept. 10, got to see the guts of the facility. It's where Palmer's Browns began tipping the dominos to this point with a 24-7 victory over the offensively challenged Bengals.

But it was Palmer's offense that finished last in the league overall (the Bengals finished 29th) and he got ripped for running a scheme that critics said changed week to week.

But Palmer, who has played a role in the career of Pro Bowlers Warren Moon, Drew Bledsoe and Mark Brunell, seems to have a touch with quarterbacks.

Couch was on the right track this season before he got hurt and sent the Browns offense into a black hole.

This season, Couch completed nearly 10 percent more of his passes (55.9 rookie completion percentage compared to last year's 63.7) and his passer's rating went from 73.2 as a rookie to 77.3 as a sophomore.

Palmer had been thinking Friday about the old Browns head coaches (Paul Brown, Forrest Gregg) who had come south to Cincinnati.

"I thought about that when I was on the plane coming here this morning," Palmer said.

Palmer, 51, off his 11th NFL season had vowed he wouldn't miss a day of work if the Browns fired him as he bids to stay in the league.

"I hope when the music stops, I have a chair to sit in," Palmer said. "Cincinnati has options, too. It's just not me with the options. Hopefully, they like what I've said and I have an opportunity."

After lunching with LeBeau and Palmer, Bengals President Mike Brown said he was impressed with Palmer's experience and knowledge. But he also didn't know which way his coach is leaning.

"This is Dick's call," Brown said. "I don't know which way he's going to go, but he's talked to some good people. Chris has been around some very good offenses in this league."

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