Meeting of (one) mind?

At least this season is already different.

You know that team meeting the Bengals always seem to have in November? The one when the talk shows are raging 24 and 7, the coach is rotating on the spit, and the players are only taking checks and not gut checks?

It happened a few months early.

Like today.

The Bengals' leadership mantle buried with a blond lock of Boomer Esiason's hair surfaced this morning at Paul Brown Stadium's first-ever players' only meeting. The Generation Xers who dug through the franchise's heritage to find this '80s time capsule were Willie Anderson and Takeo Spikes. They hatched the idea of a pre-season players-only during the offseason.

Give them credit because on this day Anderson and Spikes finally stood up in that room and admitted what insiders and outsiders muttered for much of the 1990s.

"We need to play for each other and we haven't had that around here," Anderson said. " It was a me-me personality around here. It's been because our so-called, quote unquote stars were individuals, not team guys. The me-me has to stop."

Guys like Spikes, Anderson and Akili Smith didn't like how the preseason ended 1-3. Smith began noticing some stragglers to meetings. But a player-only like this never would have happened with the same old suspects.

Anderson wonders if it could have even happened at all at the old facility, where they lockered by position. Today, Anderson pointed to coach Bruce Coslet's arrangement of offensive players pretty much lockering next to defensive players.

"The (Spinney Field) locker room wasn't set up right," Anderson said. "Here, we've got some interaction, and guys are talking instead of looking across the room and saying, 'Look at those guys jacking around.' "

It may go down as the earliest team meeting in history, but like fullback Clif Groce said, "Instead of waiting for the roof to cave in, let's patch it up now before we get going even though it doesn't need it and we haven't had any rain. Let's make sure it's right. I don't even remember a team meeting last year. I just remember it rained and everybody got wet."

Sure, they had a team meeting last year. But by that time, it had rained for 40 days and 40 nights and they were one and something god awful. So this season, they did it before the numbness paralyzed them. They did it before they leave Thursday afternoon and don't reuturn until Tuesday from their bye weekend.

"I think everyone was too damn relaxed, but we had a good practice today after the meeting," said left tackle John Jackson, the only man in the room who has played in a Super Bowl. "In this game you can't realx, because the next team you play is not going to be nice if you have a bad week of practice, or you've got things going on as far off the field. It's just a matter of these guys being focused when they get back here. It's the small things. Not the big things."

They say Jackson was the star of the meeting. Smith called him, "Big Jackson, and he made sense. He was like an old Grandpa up there" His name was invoked so often, Jackson figured he should stand up and say something and he told them, "I'm the oldest damn guy in here." At 35, he got their attention when he told them he'd played in 13 playoff games.

"That's more than a lot of you guys have even played in the regular season," he said. And he could have been talking about the team's most veteran wide receiver, Damon Griffin, who has played in 13 NFL games.

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"Get some things ironed out, get some things on the table," Jackson said. "Let everybody know they have a role on this team and they have to fulfill their role."

A players-only meeting is one of those intriguing rituals in sport. It can get laughed at like a boys-will-be-boys secret handshake society up in the treehouse. But it can also reveal the guts of a team. Ask Jackson about the team meeting the '95 Steelers had on the Friday morning after the Bengals blew them out at home on a Thursday night national TV game. They turned that October Surprise into a Super Bowl berth.

"Cussing, swearing, throwing stuff," Jackson said. "It was unbelievable. It always seemed like we had a team meeting after the Bengals beat us. I mean, that was a bad one. After that I went and had surgery and came back in five weeks. This was a different kind of meeting. There was no swearing or yellng. But it was good. I think it's a good sign the way it came about."

It came about from Anderson and Spikes, who thought about doing it in training camp. But they wanted it fresh in their teammates' minds when they left for the bye week. So it was today.

"I didn't get the sense things were getting untidy," Spikes said when asked of the vacation-like casualness of a bye week. "But I got the sense people thought it could go that way. So I wanted to cancel that out right away."

Anderson was so riled up about what he was going to say, he wondered if he should write it down. Instead, he prayed Tuesday night for guidance and then relied on his 335-pound heart. A few months ago, he read how Pacers coach Larry Bird motivated his team by looking at all the free agents in the room and asking them to imagine how much money waited for them if they played well.

"Jalen Rose had the best year of his life," said Anderson, a hard-core NBA fan.

So today Anderson asked the upcoming free agents in the room to raise their hands. He spotted Artrell Hawkins.

"Man, Artrell. You know what they're giving good cornerbacks now?" Anderson asked him. "Something like $40 to $50 million. I'd like to be playing cornerback."

"I think it went over well with the guys," Anderson said.

"We'll see," Spikes said. "Better to do it now than wait until it's too late."

Smith, whose title as franchise quarterback automatically makes him the team leader, sat back and listened to the veterans. Jackson. Spikes. Anderson. Tony McGee. Vaughn Booker, who has been to the playoffs with two different teams, found it not much different than what was behind closed doors in Kansas City and Green Bay.

"I was concerned after Friday's game when we finished 1-3," Smith said. "But the veterans said everything that was on my mind. People straggling to meetings. You've got to want to do better than that. There's no excuses. We've got the best facility in the league. And the thing Jackson said is you have to have fun playing football. It can't be like a job. Enjoy this game. We're blessed."

The Bengals hope they blessed this room today for a team. Not just 53 businessmen.

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