3-25-03, 8:10 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
PHOENIX, Ariz. _ Until the Bengals make the playoffs, Marvin Lewis won't match the national press scrutiny he took here Tuesday morning at the AFC coaches' annual media breakfast at the NFL meetings.
At some point during the hour over coffee and orange juice, Dr. Z of "Sports Illustrated," made a house call, and Fox and CNN cabled their welcome while "The New York Daily News," "The Washington Post," "The Chicago Tribune," and "The Los Angeles Times," papered the conversation.
As he has since he became the Bengals' ninth head coach two months ago, Lewis delivered the news as he defended his owner, seemingly narrowed the No. 1 pick to three candidates and revealed he wants to sign the pick before the draft, and insisted he wasn't prepared to name linebacker Takeo Spikes a franchise player and let him go to Buffalo for nothing.
Lewis called the gap between perception and reality of Bengals management "huge," and believes club president Mike Brown has taken "undue," criticism as recently as this free-agency period before the Bengals matched Spikes' $11.5 million bonus with the signing of five projected veteran starters.
"I don't know what he did before," Lewis said. "I just know it's difficult for someone to change supposedly as much as he has in three months from what people have said. I just know from how it started out and how things have been no different about what he spoke about or what I anticipated.
"Initially in free agency, people thought we were losing this guy or that guy when we were letting guys move on and leave,' Lewis said. "Through the process, that was the plan we had through the whole thing. Everything fell into place, but (people were saying), 'Things haven't changed. Mike's not doing this, Mike's not doing that.' Mike had nothing to do with it. Those were set up as parameters. It was undue criticism."
Lewis said the Bengals have had no serious conversations about trading the No. 1 pick and he wants to start negotiating with the choice two weeks before the April 26-27 NFL Draft. Quarterbacks Carson Palmer of USC and Byron Leftwich of Marshall, and Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman, are confirmed for pre-draft visits to Cincinnati. There could be others, such as Michigan State wide receiver Charles Rogers, but Lewis seems to have an affinity for those positions even though he says Rogers is the kind of fluid, explosive athlete he loves.
But Rogers makes more sense than Newman. A defensive back going No. 1? It hasn't happened since before Lewis was born, when the Steelers took Gary Glick out of Colorado A&M in 1956.
Then again, Lewis picked back-to-back top ten corners (Duane Starks and Chris McAlister) with the Ravens.
"Quarterbacks and cornerbacks are one of the most important players on your football team," Lewis said. "Those guys have to play efficiently for you to be successful. The quarterback has the ball in his hands every down and if the cornerback doesn't play efficiently, you get beat. That guy is isolated one way or the other at some point all the time."
Lewis said he decided Spikes, the team's leading tackler in four of his five seasons, wasn't worth the franchise tag of $5.6 million.
"That number for a linebacker is very disproportionate for a guy that doesn't rush the passer, No. 1," Lewis said. "Whether or not we could make a trade as quickly as we signed the other (free agents), I don't know. . . .The ($5.6 million) number would have made it prohibitive to sign those guys."
Lewis spent his session dealing primarily with the No. 1 pick and how he is going to turn around the Bengals by "acting like pros."
He did a pretty good dance about the No. 1 pick and had reporters scratching their heads over what they heard. A few things are for sure, though. He doesn't think they can trade it, he wants the guy signed before the draft, and he vows the braintrust will be unified when it emerges from the draft room.
"It's important for us, for how our program is, our team, our city, that we don't have any problems doing that," he said.
If you go by the amount of time they have spent with a prospect, then it's Palmer. A week after they broke bread with him at USC's pro day, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese took Lewis back last Friday for a private workout. Lewis spent so much time going over tape with Palmer (such as asking him to go through his thoughts as plays developed), they ended up eating cold burritos in a conference room.
"He's a guy with great stature. It doesn't seem too big for him. He's got great physical tools," Lewis said. "He's a guy that's worked at his job. He's the leader of the group. Look at the toughest guys on the team and they were his roommates. He's a guy the other guys obviously liked quite a bit."
But Lewis wants to be fair to Leftwich and says he won't make a call until after his April 7 workout, a late date because of his broken leg. Even though former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason has been one of Palmer's draft advisors, it is Leftwich's outgoing personality that has some people in the organization comparing his leadership skills to Esiason's.
"He's an impressive kid. Mentally, his command of the game, his presence when you sit down and talk with him and when he explains how they do things and how he sees things," Lewis said.
But he says everything probably hinges on the workout.
"It's huge. There's more significance (for the workout) than a lot of things," Lewis said. "Because when you invest in a guy for that amount of your salary cap, where he's going to eat up (the money) of two or three starting players as he goes down the line, and if he's not healthy. . ."
One of the knocks on Newman besides a dinged shoulder is that he'll start the season at age 25. But Lewis appears not to mind because it translates into a mature game. He reiterated that the No. 1 pick won't be asked to play right away, but he thinks Newman has a shot.
"He's got the mentality of a pro corner," Lewis said. "He plays with that style and ability. Charles Rogers has that same kind of feel to him. He's got that sense. . .that the game's not too big for him. (His age) used to be the norm. Now there are guys 20, which is amazing."
Lewis also isn't ruling out pass-rushing Arizona State defensive end Terrell Suggs and plans to attend his workout here Wednesday. But the Bengals already have a pass-rushing end in Justin Smith, and while Lewis calls ASU head coach Dirk Koetter his best friend in the business, he also admits he has yet to watch Suggs on tape.
Lewis may be media friendly, but he has a decided opinion on what has been written and what should be written and it's not always friendly.
Asked if Brown will pull rank and override him on the No. 1 pick, Lewis said, "The owner of any of these teams can do that. . .We'll feel good about it no matter the decision. That's not ever going to be one of these 'Marvin wanted this guy, but Mike wanted that guy.' Who's ever been putting that out there thus far is very wrong. . .It's going to be the Bengals (who make the pick)."
Lewis also gets a little hot with the way quarterback Jon Kitna's bonus was handled at the end of the season as the media chronicled every inch of his journey to a $1.6 million bonus triggered with 80-percent play time. There was a happy ending when the Bengals decided to award the Kitna bonus by adjusting two two-point plays.
"It came out as a negative during the season," Lewis said. "That should not have been a thing that was ever written about or printed during the football season."
Lewis advised Brown to sign off on the bonus, which reminded him of his days in Pittsburgh when Steelers owner Dan Rooney drew a hard line on bonuses and then would relent if a player got close.
"I would think if you err, you err on the side of your player," Lewis said. "Down the line, that's going to pay dividends for all of our guys."
Lewis blew off the Bengals' past by saying things like, "Thinking about that takes your mind off the future." Or, "I wasn't here, so I don't know and it doesn't matter because I've got a standard."
But it's clear he can't wait to get his program installed with his players at the April 11-14 minicamp.
"It's all speculation now," Lewis said. "The draft. Free agency is speculation. Let's line up and play football."
At that point, it's going to be simple. He is talking about, "dialing it up."
"We have to learn to be pros," Lewis said. "We have to do a better job in the detail of our jobs. If we do that, we make fewer errors on the field, which will help us win a lot more games."
A lot more, and the national guys will be around again.