6-3-03, 8:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
With a two handicap, quarterback Shane Matthews is nearly a scratch golfer. Which is somehow just about right because he's had to scratch for everything in a 10-year NFL career distinguished by his ability to come off the bench and win half of his 22 starts despite never being an established starter.
The frequent flier veteran (Chicago twice, Carolina, Washington, Tampa Bay) took another route Tuesday and ended up in Cincinnati as another brick in coach Marvin Lewis' rebuilding project.
"I know Marvin Lewis is going to do a tremendous job in turning around this organization," said Matthews after his first workout at Paul Brown Stadium. "I just like his approach to the game. He's been on a Super Bowl championship team in Baltimore , so the guy can coach football. He'll definitely change the Bengals' organization."
The 6-3, 195-pound Matthews, 33, is definitely Lewis' idea of a backup quarterback. Solid. Smart. Proven. Knows his role. Soft spoken with a sugary accent dipped in Pascagoula, Miss.
One of the reasons Akili Smith got released is the coaches knew there might be a time or two this season that Smith maybe couldn't resist taking shots at the organization even if starter Jon Kitna was playing well as they developed the NFL's No. 1 draft pick in Carson Palmer.
As the Redskins defensive coordinator last year, Lewis saw Matthews deal stoically with some curious circumstances that bounced him out of the Washington lineup despite some winning outings. It convinced Lewis that he would be a perfect fit for a Bengals' team that seems to always be synonymous with quarterback controversy.
Now it should be more like "The Young and Rest Easy," instead of some long-running soap opera.
"When you're in my position and have played as long as I have," Matthews said, "and they draft a kid No. 1 and have an established starter, you just have to see the big picture.
"Jon's the starter," Matthews said. He's played well. Carson is the No. 1 pick and they're kind of getting him ready for the future. I'm going to help him out as much as I can. I've been in that situation the last couple of years with Cade McNown (in Chicago in 1999) and last year with Patrick Ramsey in Washington. It's something I enjoy doing. I don't have a problem. Sure, everyone wants to play, but you have to meet your role on the team. If they need me to play, I'll be ready."
Matthews learned the art of role playing behind quarterback Steve Beuerlein during two frustrating seasons he didn't throw a pass in Carolina. That completed his first five seasons in the league in which he threw a grand total of 17 balls. But Beuerlein showed Matthews how to get ready to play no matter the situation or spot on the roster. And in the last four years, it's paid off with 819 passes in which he has completed nearly 60 percent and averaged more than one touchdown pass in his starts.
Stepping aside for McNown and Ramsey cut into his best seasons. This past year, Matthews threw 11 touchdowns against six interceptions in seven starts and was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for 327 yards in the opening win over Arizona. He admitted he had some tough games, and in his last game before he got benched for the last six, he hit just 15 of 35 passes for 113 yards. But two went for touchdowns and the Redskins nearly beat the Giants in the Meadowlands before losing, 19-17, ending an odd season Matthews bounded between Nos. 1, 2, and 3.
Matthews admits it didn't go the way he planned in Washington and is unable "to put a finger on it." He chalks it up to the quarterback getting too much praise for wins and too much blame for losses. Maybe he figures since he was undrafted out of Florida, it's all gravy dripping off the scouts.
But he shrugs it off like he shrugged off this offseason's mishap.
On one of the first days of free agency in March, Matthews turned down a couple of hundred thousand dollars to sign with the Vikings. He opted to take no bonus from Tampa Bay so he could keep his family near their Gainesville, Fla. home, but the Bucs cut him after taking Chris Simms in the April draft.
"That's the nature of the business," Matthews said. "I don't have a problem with it. Sure, it bothers you, but you get over it."
Matthews figures to make the minimum $655,000 here for his one-year deal (which counts $450,000 against the salary cap), but he's not sure if that's as the No. 2 or No. 3. He pulled into Cincinnati midnight Tuesday and he had barely enough time to get a helmet, never mind a playbook.
He couldn't take any snaps Tuesday because he doesn't know the offense and like he said, "I couldn't go into a game today because I don't know any plays."
So Palmer figures to get the bulk of the backup snaps until Matthews catches up, or maybe Palmer practices well enough to stay No. 2.
As Lewis has said, "Carson is going to determine when Carson plays."
Matthews isn't worried about picking up the offense. His father, Bill, coached him in high school and he's been around Xs and Os all his life. Even though he considered himself "a baseball-basketball guy," who says golf is his favorite sport because it's the hardest.
"It's much harder than football," Matthews said. "You're never going to have the perfect round, you're never going to hit the perfect shot. You can hit a 100-yard pitching wedge or sand wedge and hit it five feet (within the cup) and you're always going to complain you should have it two feet."'
If he's called upon, the Bengals will be satisfied if he can just keep it close.