8-31-03, 10:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Even with just a week to go before his first regular-season game as head coach of the Bengals, Marvin Lewis still proved how dramatic his impact has been on the organization.
Down through the years, the Bengals have been reluctant on Cutdown Day to release high draft picks, push dead money into future salary caps, and drastically roll over the roster in the hopes continuity could solve some ills.
But all that went by the boards on Lewis' first Cutdown Sunday when he obviously felt there weren't many sacred cows on a 2-14 team. So the Bengals released eight players who were on last year's Opening Day roster or injured reserve, headlined by former first-rounder Reinard Wilson, former second-rounder Lamont Thompson, and left outside linebacker Steve Foley on defense, and four-year receiver Danny Farmer on offense.
"I mean what I say," said Lewis as the smoke cleared, a total of 23 players who were here for the Sept. 8, 2002 opener against the Chargers now gone, 17 of them cut since he was named coach.
There could be more Monday because the club has first dibs on the NFL's waiver wire. It has already been reported they had interest in backup running back Kenny Watson, released by the Redskins this weekend. The Rams also whacked a Lewis product in safety Kim Herring, a veteran of the Ravens' record-setting defense, but he has been hurt.
And, they could have one spot to play with. Usually, the Bengals keep eight defensive linemen, but they currently have nine, and that includes Greg Scott, with the club since only Thursday.
The vetting of Wilson and Foley, both scheduled to make $1 million or more this year, saves them about $2.2 million under this year's cap. But the pair, along with Thompson, could count as much as $2.1 million against the 2004 cap even though they won't be here, a switch for a team that tries to avoid "dead money."
Wilson and Foley had just signed what amounted to contract extensions within the past two years, and Thompson became the Bengals' first second-rounder since the celebrated Freddie Childress was sent packing from the 1989 training camp to not make two Opening Days with the club.
If it sounds like Lewis has a penchant for the players that he brought here, he does. Wilson and Foley have a combined 33.5 sacks NFL sacks. Some of the people who are going to replace what they do in pass defenses, recruited and signed by Lewis this offseason, bring almost as many, if not more. Left end Duane Clemons comes here with 35 sacks and middle linebacker Kevin Hardy has 30.5
A new day?
It certainly appears that Lewis is getting his way when it comes to making his roster and isn't a puppet of management, as has been a criticism of recent regimes.
Proof that maybe the Bengals are taking more than talent into consideration came quickly when word surfaced Sunday night that Foley is well thought of enough around the league to be headed to the Steelers for a visit.
"We want players that can make plays and be productive. Whether you've been here a week or 10 years, it doesn't really matter," Lewis said. "You have to do the right thing for the football team, and the organization, and the building."
Asked if the club had given up too soon on such a high pick like Thompson, Lewis said, "He didn't have just one year. He was here last year and this year. We can't wait. . .We've got other guys and we're going to move forward."
Also released Sunday were Travis Dorsch, which gives the punting job to Nick Harris, and tight end Sean Brewer, one of four players cut by the club Sunday that were taken on the first day of their respective drafts. Lewis also said Harris has held on to his job as holder despite his bobbles during four pre-season field-goal and extra-point attempts.
Dorsch, a fourth-round draft choice in 2002, admitted his stint in Cincinnati had been one long, strange journey. Drafted as a kicker even though most teams worked him out as a punter, Dorsch failed to beat out Neil Rackers but made the team anyway last year.
While he worked at both punting and kicking, he wasn't active for a game until the season's 13th game and uncorked two low-line punts that got returned for touchdowns in Carolina. When the new coaching staff arrived, Dorsch was made solely a punter.
Echoing the line from one of George Steinbrenner's Yankees of the 1970s, Dorsch said, "Some kids dream of playing in the NFL, some others want to join the circus, and I ended up doing a little bit of both. But there's no question I leave here a stronger person and a better kicker. I just look at it as a chance for another opportunity in the league."
One guy who is certain to get another chance and most likely in Green Bay is backup middle linebacker Armegis Spearman. The Bengals gave him a $550,000 bonus back in March to match a three-year offer sheet from the Packers.
That's another move that probably wouldn't have happened before Lewis arrived. But the other cuts were pretty straightforward:
A 2003 draft pick in sixth-rounder Langston Moore, a defensive tackle from South Carolina, as well as free-agent rookies Ray Jackson, a running back from the University of Cincinnati, Ja'Waren Blair, a defensive tackle from East Carolina, tackle Belton Johnson from Mississippi, and wide receiver Kevin Walter from Eastern Michigan.
Thatcher Szalay, a second-year, center, also got cut. Szalay, Brewer, and Dorsch are eligible for the five-man practice squad that has to be finalized by 4 p.m. Monday. Also eligible are Jackson, Blair , Moore, Johnson and Walter.
Walter, a waiver-wire pickup last week, looked excellent on special teams in three games with the Giants and he looked good again Friday night for the Bengals against the Colts, when he caught his first NFL ball for 18 yards. Lewis said he hoped they can get him back for the practice squad, but all candidates must first clear waivers.
Special teams was a key reason Farmer and Thompson are gone. Free-agent rookie cornerback Terrell Roberts, who has been around the ball since he arrived, dropped a punt returner for a loss Friday night. The 6-1, 220-pound Thompson is a scout's dream because of his speed, but Lewis didn't see many plays on film or in camp even though the Bengals gave him $1.6 million to sign just 13 months ago. Last season, Thompson had just four special team tackles and one interception in 13 games.
Farmer, a free agent after the season, missed 15 games in his three years here, many because of the various injuries that stunted his progress just when it looked like he was ready to take off. Ironically, he couldn't play Friday night with a deep bone bruise in his knee, and rookie free-agent Lawrence Hamilton grabbed his roster spot on four catches for 121 yards.
But what really impressed Lewis was the tackle Hamilton made on the kickoff after his 68-yard catch-and-run. Knowing that the fifth receiver some times won't be dressed on Game Day, Lewis wanted some flexibility for special teams coach Darrin Simmons that he didn't have with Farmer.
"If he were on the active on the 46 man (Game Day) roster, he could give us another guy Darrin could use," Lewis said. "Every day he gets a little better. Right now, he needs to continue to get better on offense so can get into the mix there."
Farmer, who has 43 career catches, admitted he was surprised. Not only did he have his healthiest training camp, he thought he had a productive camp.
"I wanted to play Friday. It wasn't my decision," Farmer said. "But I respect what they feel like they had to do. It's tough when you work out every day in the offseason and it doesn't work out. I'm disappointed I wasn't able to help turn it around here. I think Cincinnati is a great place to play football and I'm really going to miss it. I think they're going to be good. If not this year, the future is bright."
One of the subliminal messages Lewis seems to be sending to a team that used to tolerate injured players lounging at practice on a golf cart is that guys are going to be evaluated on their durability as much as their talent.
Just last week, they reached an injury settlement with Ron Dugans, their best special teams player who couldn't get on the field in the preseason. Four of the five players who didn't play Friday, Wilson (hamstring), Foley (back), Spearman (hamstring), and Farmer (knee), got cut. Wilson hasn't missed many games in his six seasons, but the others have had problems staying on the field.
Foley hasn't played in 20 straight regular-season games and missed a batch of workouts this past spring, as did Spearman.
"It's hard to evaluate when you don't play," Lewis said. "You don't know what they can do. I see better than I hear. You can't put the rest of the football team at risk.
"There's a fine line between keeping guys healthy and getting guys back well to their full potential," he said.
Wilson, the 14th pick in the 1997 draft, never reached his college sack total or potential. He leaves with 24 sacks in six seasons after leaving Florida State as the school's all-time sacker with 35.5. He followed up his career-high nine sacks in 2001 with none last year.
Wilson has been the left end on passing downs, and Foley had been seen as his possible replacement, but Lewis is unworried.
"I feel good with what Duane will give us," Lewis said. "Kevin Hardy been a productive pass rusher in the NFL."