6-12-03, 5 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Even on the last day of their mandatory minicamp, even on their last day of football until training camp opens in 45 days, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis kept pushing the personnel turnstile that has turned Paul Brown Stadium into a latter-day Union Terminal
Before the last practice Wednesday afternoon, he intensified an already tight race at safety by claiming off waivers former second-round pick Rogers Beckett from the Chargers. Beckett is the 10th veteran claimed or signed this offseason, and a guy with 29 NFL starts who has a legit shot at joining an Opening Day defense that could have up to seven players in different spots from a year ago.
Then, after Wednesday's practice, Lewis released the 10th player from last year's roster, a safety who spent his rookie season on injured reserve in Stephon Kelly. Then, they signed another safety, a college free agent from Troy State they had hustled into the last few practices with no name over his No. 40. It turned out the name is Moore, as in Troy State's DeLoise.
"I don't know where No. 40 came from," cornerback Artrell Hawkins said. "I think he lives three houses down or something. I think he was walking by the stadium, got dragged on to the field and did pretty good. They're not afraid to say it. I've heard it four or five times already this year. If you can't do it, they'll find somebody who will."
"I heard that twice this morning," said cornerback Tory James.
"That's more than I heard it all of last year," Hawkins said. "The coaches have a different style. Marvin has a more aggressive, in your face style.
"It's like the Hip-Hop industry," Hawkins said. "One minute you're on top, the next minute you're on the bottom. It keeps you on your toes. It makes every practice important."
"If you're hurting us, he'll get you out of here," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "That has guys looking over their shoulder and keeps everyone on the ball. I've been saying that for years. It keeps people sharp."
A chuckling Lewis calls it the "Newman" theory. As in, "There's a lot of new men out there.
"It keeps us the way we're supposed to act as professionals," Lewis said. "That's to take care of your business. You can always be replaced."
And that's the tone Lewis has established in his 32 practices since he took the job. With a few cuts and tucks, he has broken down what many observers thought was complacency on a roster that didn't have much flux the past few seasons despite a 12-36 record since they moved into PBS. Lewis has used the maximum offseason practice days allowed a new coach by the NFL's collective bargaining agreement to even encourage the most discouraged.
"When things are (bad), I tell you they're (bad)," said running back Corey Dillon. "I don't duck and dodge and hide and say things are good when they're not. Things are good here."
Lewis kept maximizing his time up until the very end Wednesday by sending the players off on the notes of the music tumbling out of the locker room's sound system. It's believed to be the first time it has been used since the day Bruce Coslet resigned on Sept. 25, 2000, two head coaches and 45 games ago.
"The guys have been asking about it," Lewis said. "I don't have an opinion one way or the other. As long as it's handled the right way and we agree to agree, we're OK. That's their place. That's the kind of atmosphere we're trying to create here. . .If they're here, we know where they are. That's a big plus that we have the ability to do that. We want them to like it here. They're welcome to do it after practice. I think it's their time to cool down and go forward, as long as we take care of business in meetings and on the field."
With R. Kelly floating through the lunch hour, equipment managers Rob Recker and Jeff Brickner found themselves preparing yet another new veteran's locker. In the 6- 3, 205-pound Beckett, they have found a fast guy who has the big body and smarts they seek in the secondary. He is suddenly part of a very competitive mix at safety that already includes a pair of Bengals' second-rounders in Mark Roman and Lamont Thompson, as well as second-year starter Marquand Manuel and converted cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn.
"He's been an efficient player on special teams," Lewis said. "He's been a starter in the NFL, and the opportunity and the price are right."
Apparently, Beckett, 26, didn't fit into the two deep-zone scheme employed last season by new Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer. But he appeals to the Bengals with his size, straight-ahead speed, salary ($525,000), and the fact he has played both spots. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier says his free and strong safeties are interchangeable.
Lewis and Frazier are also looking for smarts, and Beckett, who is halfway to his master's degree in public administration, served as the vice president of the Marshall student body during his final year at the school.
The Chargers' brass wasn't exactly kind to Beckett publicly when they released him earlier this week, indicating he had always been on the bubble. But the Bengals talked to some people who knew of his work in San Diego, they were impressed with the scouting report, and he comes to town Monday and Tuesday to meet with his new coaches.
"It's really hard to say what happened last year," Beckett said Wednesday. "Sometimes you fit into a system and sometimes you don't. That happens when teams change coaches."
Beckett now finds himself on the other sideline after starting for the Chargers this past Opening Day in their 34-6 win in Cincinnati. He says he's not disappointed the Bengals used their No. 1 draft position to claim him.
"I look at it as an opportunity," Beckett said. "That'all a person wants. Things can change. I know (Marvin Lewis) has coached great defenses in the past and the defensive coordinator has been highly successful."
Frazier indicated the move doesn't mean the club is dissatisfied with the play at safety, but sources around the league are saying the Bengals are trying to get bigger and more productive at the spot.
"It's hard to pass on a guy like that who was a top pick just a few years ago and can really run," Frazier said. "Especially just to get him into your camp to look at him. It gives us more competition at a spot where we think we need to improve. It's not necessarily that we're dissatisfied. You always want to try and create competition and match the level of play of the other people, or even surpass it. Time will tell."
Beckett was taken nine slots after Roman in the 2000 draft when San Diego took him with the 43rd pick out of Marshall. Beckett started 26 straight games before he got benched for the final six games of last season. He played in all 48 games the last three seasons, with 29 starts, mostly at free safety and some at strong last year in place of the injured Rodney Harrison, and league observers felt he would be claimed by more than one team.
The Bengals are still waiting to see something tangible from Thompson, last year's 41st pick in the draft. They have been encouraged by the play of Manuel, a sixth-round pick from last year. Roman and Manuel are the current starters.
"We're trying to find a pair that are going to be elite guys in our league," Frazier said. "That's our goal."
Linebacker Brian Simmons sees more player movement than in past years, but he thinks it's simply part of the league's culture. What he can definitely put his finger on is that his team is light years improved in conditioning and mind frame from the day head coach Dick LeBeau was fired back on Dec. 30. Since 1991, the Bengals' offseason has been under fire, given their 17-74 record in September and October.
"That's because we did crap for six, seven months," Simmons said. "That's what we're preparing for. You get what you work for. "I'm not saying we're going to win the Super Bowl. But looking at the calendar, I like where we are. I feel we've made good progress."
Anderson, who leads the roster with 104 Bengals' starts, says this is the most prepared team heading to training camp that he's been a part of. Physically as well as mentally. Even the little things, like music in the locker room.
"The songs are clean and we like them, those are the important things," Anderson said. "It has nothing to do with discipline. That's one of the reasons we lost all the time last year. We paid too much attention to stupid stuff.
"Break time is break time," Anderson said. "As long as it's not loud and guys can still study their plays, and it's not a big distraction, it's a good thing."
Now the only question is if the music can be heard over the turnstile.