3-8-03, 5:45 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Marvin Lewis sent more instant messages than AOL Friday, his most decisive, productive, and revealing day as head coach of the Bengals.
When the dust cleared near midnight, the Bengals had confirmed a four-year deal for Cowboys linebacker Kevin Hardy. They didn't confirm a deal for Titans defensive tackle John Thornton, but agent Harold Lewis said he had an agreement with the club for six years.
And he kept working it through the weekend. As late as Sunday afternoon, the Bengals were in speeded-up talks with Raiders cornerback Tory James and Falcons tight end Reggie Kelly, according to their agents. In fact, one NFC team said that James was headed to a four-year deal in Cincinnat, but his agent or the team wouldn't confirm it.
Friday's timeline might as well have been a Lewis memo to the locker room:
If you're not on the boat, Lewis will leave you at the dock. After listening to defensive leader Takeo Spikes say he didn't want to be in Cincinnati, Lewis opted to get two cheaper but highly regarded players who do want to play for him in Hardy and Thornton.
Lewis wouldn't comment on how it impacts the club's decision, but it's a crystal clear indication the Bengals won't match Buffalo's offer sheet to Spikes. As clear as Hardy's uniform number from Jacksonville and Dallas matches Spikes' No. 51. Irony? Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons is going to replace his 1998 Drafmate by playing his more natural right outside spot.
This is one of the reasons they hired him. You can't beat charisma and a Super Bowl ring in attracting free agents. If he wants you, he'll sell you as if this is his first day on the recruiting trail for Idaho State in 1982. Even as Thornton got sweet talked in Arizona and New England after Tuesday's
Paul Brown Stadium visit, Lewis often rang him up on his cell phone so he wouldn't forget him.
"John wanted to be there, plain and simple," agent Harold Lewis said of a $22.5 million deal. "Marvin kept calling. I learned something on this one, too. John left more on the open market than he got in Cincinnati, but that's how important the coaching staff is to him. How many times does a guy take less to go to Cincinnati? It's a tribute to Marvin and to John. They're doing it for all the right reasons."
If the players had any doubt how much juice the head coach has in the Bengals' front office, they don't now. Lewis wanted the numbers that executive vice president Katie Blackburn crunched going to a young defensive lineman (Thornton is 26 and suddenly one of the top paid D-linemen in the game thanks to Lewis) and a veteran, versatile linebacker (Hardy has played all three spots) who could replace Spikes. At times, he joined director of business development Troy Blackburn in negotiations.
"Troy, Marvin, and we got this done," Harold Lewis said. "Marvin had a lot of input."
"When Marvin made it clear that he wanted Kevin, Troy went and got it done," said Eric Metz, one of Hardy's agents.
Lewis' fingerprints were all over the place. His idea of defense is having athletic, interchangeable linebackers, which is why he went out and got Hardy to play middle linebacker even though he has never played there consistently.
This is where you get into the Marvintangibles. Forget that Hardy turns 30 the week training camp opens.
"Kevin is a guy who has been All-Pro and who was a key player on a team (Jacksonville) that went to two AFC Championship games," Lewis said. "He's been where we want to go, and he has an opportunity to be a great leader for us."
Hardy is confident he can make the move. Before playing with Dallas this past season, he spent a remarkably versatile career in Jacksonville leading the Jaguars in tackles as a strong-side backer and a weak-side backer.
"Playing on the right in Jacksonville was almost like playing on the inside anyway," Hardy said Friday night. "I've never started a season at the Mike linebacker, but I've usually ended up there at some point. It's going to be an adjustment and a challenge, but I don't think it will be that much of an adjustment. In one of the packages in Dallas I was in the middle and when we started getting injuries, I played some."
The 6-4, 250-pound Hardy had 114 tackles for the Cowboys in showing he has bounced back from the micro fracture in his knee that cost him the last half of the 2001 season in Jacksonville. It was good enough for the Bengals to give him $5 million in the first year between bonuses and salaries and more than $14 million over four years.
'When I came out of college (as the second pick in the 1996 draft), I was known as a guy that could play every linebacker spot," Hardy said. "So I enjoy being able to do that."
Hardy played twice a year against the Bengals for six years and isn't sure why this team has never been able to get over the hump.
"I think it's just a matter of getting on a roll," Hardy said. "Teams play with confidence when they get a couple of wins and it just keeps going. The reason I came there is because I've got a lot of respect for Marvin Lewis. I've always admired how he's coached and after meeting the other coaches and seeing what he has going on here, I think it's going in the right direction and I want to be a part of it."
Hardy raised his eyebrows with the signing of Thornton. He remembered the kid playing as a rookie for the Titans, a second-rounder out of West Virginia in the 1999 season.
"He was a big reason we didn't go to the Super Bowl that year," said Hardy of the Jags' loss to Tennessee. "He was all over the place in the AFC championship game."
Thornton hasn't put up big numbers and he missed the last 13 games of the 2001 season with an injured shoulder. But he is highly regarded young player on the come and Lewis is banking on him emerging as an elite player.
Angelo Wright, the agent for Raiders defensive tackle Sam Adams, noticed. Wright thought he could get a deal with Cincinnati Friday night because the numbers were close, but it became clear that Lewis was leaning to Thornton's youth.
"It indicates that this is a two- to three- year plan and that they aren't looking for this year," Wright said.
But Metz dropped a reminder Friday that it doesn't take long to change the perception.
"We got criticized for sending players to Philadelphia five years ago and Green Bay 10 years ago and we think Marvin is on the right path in Cincinnati," Metz said. "Kevin has been in the league seven years and been with Jacksonville and Dallas, and he was very impressed with the staff there in Marvin and the rest of the defensive coaches."