Lewis has Senior staff

1-2-04, 2:05 p.m. Updated:
1-2-04, 6:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Marvin Lewis got his first wish of 2004 Friday when his Bengals' staff was named to coach the North in the Jan. 24 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

It's a coup for the Bengals in their efforts to find out what makes the top prospects tick behind the scenes in time for the April 24-25 NFL Draft. And it's a headline for the 55th Senior Bowl, because its year ends the way it began.

The Bengals named Lewis head coach back on Jan. 14 in Mobile during the week leading up to the Senior Bowl, and now he returns as one of the league's most visible figures after leading the 2-14 Bengals to an 8-8 season in which they contended for a playoff spot into the last week.

The Bengals hope it's their first nationally-televised game of 2004, since it airs live at 5 p.m. from Ladd Peebles Stadium on Saturday the 24th.

"There's no better way to evaluate a player than working with him on the field every day and then spending that meeting time with him," Lewis said. "It's something we're really looking forward to and something we really think is going to help us as we prepare for this draft."

The best Bengals' example of how teams can be helped by having their coaches in such a premium position is Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson. Before offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski took the job in Cincinnati a week after the 2001 Senior Bowl, he was the wide receivers coach for the Steelers and got to coach Oregon State's Johnson that week in Mobile.

He was impressed with not only Johnson's speed, but he also saw in the meeting room that he had the kind of personality that could adapt to the pro game.

"You could see he had the passion for it. That he just loved to play and wanted to succeed," Bratkowski said. "I'm not so sure you can always find that out when you have just an hour to interview a guy. To see how they interact with players and coaches over a seven-day period and in game situations is just invaluable."

This year marks the first time a Cincinnati staff has worked the game, but if anyone should know the drill, it's Bratkowski. This is his third stint in the Senior Bowl in

the last nine years. In 1996, when he was Seattle's offensive coordinator, he coached a little-known wideout from Tennessee-Chattanooga, and just had to have him by the end of the week.

"Terrell Owens. We tried to make every deal possible to get him in the third round," Bratkowski said. "We couldn't do it, but we tried. We just saw the potential close up. We see how he had the ability to change a game so quickly with one play."

Bratkowski saw similar ability in Johnson.

"Well, no one came close to covering him all week," Bratkowski said. "And when you worked with him in the meeting room, it was clear that he was capable of being able to understand what had to be done at the next level. You could see how much he wanted it."

After coordinating the South defense to a 31-8 victory in the 1998 game as the Ravens defensive coordinator, Lewis has always felt spending the week coaching prospects gives teams a leg up in the scouting process. Among those he coached for the South were Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins, as well as other future pros in cornerback Brian Kelly and safety Donovin Darius.

"You get a feel for them there," Lewis said, " but you also have to factor in how they play on tape. You have to do both."

The rosters are still being put together, but there will already be a reunion of sorts. Bowling Green quarterback Josh Harris, the son of former Bengals Super Bowl tight end M.L. Harris, has committed to play for the North.

Also headed to Mobile to play for Lewis is the winner of the Butkus and Bednarik awards as the nation's top linebacker, Oklahoma's Teddy Lehman, and Hawaii defensive end Travis LaBoy, the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year.

Michigan running back Chris Perry and Syracuse wide receiver Johnnie Morant are also ticketed for the North.

The NFL chooses the Senior Bowl coaches based on draft position with the teams with the worst records getting first dibs. But the Bengals didn't get the chance last year because of their staff changes. The South is to be coached by the San Diego Chargers, which has the first pick in the 2004 draft.

Lewis' practice regimen is going to be on display to the entire league. General managers, head coaches, assistant coaches, scouts and other front office personnel from all 32 NFL teams descend on both teams' practices. The Bengals' coaches will be able to see the South squad work because the teams never practice at the same time. Practices begin Monday before the game.

The game has been played every year since 1950 and in Mobile since 1951.

Presented by Food World, the Senior Bowl is a non-profit event that has donated more than $2 million to charity since 1989.

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