8-18-03, 7:30 a.m.
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ As if we don't know enough about Marvin Lewis, we could find out more in the next few hours when he makes his first significant number of cuts.
It may not be the meeting room smelling of sweat whenever Paul Brown turned on the projector, but Lewis has instilled his own brand of Fear Factor when it comes to worrying about jobs. The Georgetown Spa and Country Club has become the much tougher Marvin Gardens.
There is no place to get egos massaged. He said it last week after the Jets' loss when he said he would keep 40 guys and go find 13 others to fill out the mandated 53-man roster if he had to. He told "SI.com," that only a handful of players had bought into his program. Even after Saturday night's win over the Lions, Lewis could be heard saying, "Buy in, or move on."
That's why there is a buzz that Lewis wants to make some eyebrow-raising cuts of veteran players that will shock his team into the realization that the country club days are over. That could happen, but maybe not Monday. He may save it for the final cut to 53 on Aug. 31. Or maybe not. Never let them see you sweat.
The way some rookies and newcomers are playing, he may indeed get his chance to make some more statements. How Lewis constructs his roster with how many players at which positions is going to tell us volumes of his philosophy, and is there any doubt it's going to be vastly different from last year?
Last year, the Bengals had an oddly arranged roster because they kept two kickers (Neil Rackers and Travis Dorsch) in a league that last year on Opening Day averaged 1.2 kickers. Here are the Bengals' numbers last season at each position compared to the league average in parenthesis for the first week of the 2002 season:
Quarterbacks 3 (3), Running backs 5 (5.2), Wide receivers 6 (5.4), Tight ends 2 (3), Offensive line 10 (9), Defensive line 8 (8.6), Linebackers 6 (6.5), Defensive backs 9 (9.5), Kickers 2 (1.2) Punter 1 (1), Long snapper 1 (.7).
If the Bengals, indeed, have a new commitment to special teams, might Lewis cut back to nine offensive linemen while adding at defensive back? With what figures to be one less kicker, and at least one more tight end, does that slice them closer to the league average at running backs and wide receiver?
And there are some serious battles going on with veterans trying to hold on. A look at a few hot spots: **
LINEBACKERS:** How well is the defensive line playing? Against the Lions, three of the four leading tacklers were linebackers (rookie Khalid Abdullah with seven and Brian Simmons and Kevin Hardy each with five).
Steve Foley has lost his left outside job to Adrian Ross, but does that mean he gets cut? You wouldn't think so. He is scheduled to make $1 million this year, so we'll find out what Lewis thinks of $1 million backups if Ross holds on.
Foley is a marvelous talent trying to get his timing back after missing the last 20 regular-season games with injuries. It's the same old Ross. He's smart, aggressive, and never shies away from a hit, which are all three prerequisites for a spot in the Lewis regime.
Abdullah, the fifth-round pick from Division II Mars Hill, has been as advertised. He plays fast and reckless and showed Saturday why they drafted him when he shot up field and made a tackle on the punt team at the Bengals 16. When was the last time you saw that? There are those who believe he's the most improved player since the full roster started working in May. **
WIDE RECEIVERS:** Finally, they should be back at full strength for Saturday's game against Tennessee after two weeks of injury and absence. But after two years of keeping six wides, are they forced to keep five now that they are assured of having three legit tight ends on the roster?
You have to feel T.J. Houshmandzadeh helped himself immensely Saturday night with the 39-yard punt return that reminded people of his special teams dimension. Even though Ron Dugans (Achilles) has yet to play a game, would they cut the guy who has been their best special teams player for the past two years in this new climate? Indeed, will teams be the overriding question here even though guys like Danny Farmer (averaging 23.3 yards per his four pre-season catches) and rookie Kelley Washington are dangerous from scrimmage? The coaches must decide if guys like Dugans and Houshmandzadeh are more valuable because of special teams.
SECONDARY: It's the same question here. A special teams coach would no doubt rather have more DBs than wideouts and the Bengals might be able to afford going with 10 this year instead of nine.
Who would that help? Free-agent rookie cornerback Terrell Roberts has been terrific, albeit with some erratic play, but he is always around the ball. Cornerback Reggie Myles may have locked up a spot with excellent teams play, where he had two tackles Saturday, along with two from scrimmage.
The safeties are grinding along, with starters Mark Roman and Marquand Manuel and backups Rogers Beckett and Kevin Kaesviharn playing well. Can they still keep just nine DBs because Roman and Kaesviharn can also play corner?
OFFENSIVE LINE: Can they go light by one spot here and keep nine?
Mike Goff's transition from guard to center continues to unfold, but they seem to be committed to the move and believe he'll be ready by Opening Day. Still, wouldn't it be hard to see them getting rid of Rich Braham, their center for the last four years?
The backup line played well as they always seem to do in the preseason, but it presents them with a numbers crunch.
Victor Leyva has had the best of his three camps and played well in his shot at first-team right guard Saturday in place of Matt O'Dwyer. Seventh-rounder Scott Kooistra has looked good at right tackle, so you don't see them giving up on a draft choice there. Alex Sulfsted gives you a left guard and left tackle, but so does Scott Rehberg with more experience. Thatcher Szalay is a young-and-upcoming center. Decisions, decisions. **
TIGHT ENDS:Matt Schobel hasn't played a game because of hamstring problems, but will they cut a guy who caught 27 balls as a rookie last year even as well as Sean Brewer has played? Reggie Kelly and Tony Stewart keep getting rave reviews and look to have the first two slots. The University of Kentucky's Derek Smith has also showed up. If he and Brewer get cut, they should live on other teams. But, could they keep four tight ends?
RUNNING BACKS:** They could go with four here (two running backs and two fullbacks), but that would be tough and the formula would appear to be three running backs and two fullbacks. But if they keep at least three tight ends as it appears, could they keep just one fullback? And what about running back Brandon Bennett? He always comes into camp on the bubble and leaves firmly entrenched. Sound familiar? He looked sharp Saturday in offering the team's longest run from scrimmage of the preseason, a 21-yarder.
Plus, Rudi Johnson remains the only long-term answer if they need a 25-carry-a-game guy off the bench for any stretch. And what about rookie Ray Jackson? He could have helped himself in the red zone Saturday night, but he's a good player who gives them youth and athleticism. Stay tuned.
Bottom line? If Lewis wants to send a message at any spot, he can. Nine DBs? 10? Nine offensive linemen? 10? As usual, he's holding the cards with a poker face.