Mentors fear student

3-25-03, 9:10 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

PHOENIX, Ariz. _ Brian Billick would take the hunch.

He knows the NFL loves the old mentor-student matchup on Opening Day, so, no, he won't be surprised when the schedule is finally released if his Ravens are on the road for the first game of the regular season at Paul Brown Stadium against Marvin Lewis' Bengals.

What is a bit more surprising is Billick thinks it will be an early-season division showdown. Even though the Bengals are coming off a 2-14 season, have never won an AFC North game, and are 1-7 against Baltimore since Billick became head coach in 1999.

"I would think they have a real chance to be a playoff team" Billick said Monday here at the NFL annual meeting. "Marvin has a definitive plan. He'll have the organization working collectively in the right direction. I see no reason, looking at their personnel and knowing Marvin, that they won't be a team that's capable of making the playoffs."

Of course, there is no greater optimistic moment of the NFL season for a head coach. All 32 of them had just sat for the group photo on the lush expanse of the grounds of the Arizona Biltmore in balmy 80-degree temperatures, six months from the searing weekly pressure. For his first photo, they put Lewis in the front row Monday between San Francisco's Dennis Erickson and Carolina's John Fox, and in front of fellow rookie Jack Del Rio of Jacksonville.

But Lewis is to be forever identified with two of the coaches in his own division. He masterminded Billick's defense to a Super Bowl title in 2000, but it was the kid he first met in high school at football camp at Pennsylvania's Indiana University who gave him his first job in the league in 1992 on a Steelers' team that went to the Super Bowl three years later.

"They can very easily be a contender next year," said Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher. "He's going to bring a different mentality to that

team that is very much needed. He's going to get that team playing with confidence and they're going to be scary."

Billick, 49, and Cowher, two months shy of 46, are at the opposite ends of the NFL's public relations poles. Billick doesn't mind ticking off people with his glib candor. Cowher chooses the workmanlike words that match his Western Pennsylvania accent more carefully.

But both have worked intimately with Lewis, 44. And both conclude that his hire has closed the balance of power in their division.

"They've got a lot of talent in Cincinnati. It's going to be scary to think what he's got after this draft," Cowher said. "It's always been a tough game every time we play them. He's going to give them that persona they've been missing."

Cowher and Billick have combined for a 23-7 record against the Bengals, remarkable against a team they feel has usually had much better talent. When they talk about what Lewis has to do and can do, it starts with psychologically.

"The fresh approach is going to have a residual effect," Billick said. "If the players can have a little bit of confidence, and Marvin does as good a job as anybody with that, that confidence can get them over the first bump, whatever it happens to be. An injury. Losing a couple of games. That will get them over that initial bump. That's what we did that championship year. We got over that three-game losing streak. If you can do that. . ".

During Lewis' first four years in the league as the Steelers linebackers coach, Pittsburgh racked up a 7-1 record against Dave Shula's Bengals. After Lewis went to Baltimore in 1996, Cowher proceeded to go 3-4 against Bruce Coslet and then 5-1 against Dick LeBeau. Maybe he knows the Bengals better than themselves.

"He brings some stability to them," Cowher said. "He's been on championship teams in the National Football League. He's been around some great players. He knows how to keep perspective. When they win a couple of games in a row, that's going to be expected around there. It's not going to be someone running around with jubilation."

Still, it gets down to players, and Cowher and Billick have taken note of the four projected defensive starters who have signed on with Lewis in free agency. Billick loves former Titans defensive tackle John Thornton and while some people wonder about Kevin Hardy's knee and his move to middle linebacker at age 30, Billick understands what Lewis is doing. He has seen him do it. He let him do it.

"He obviously has a plan," Billick said. "They may be better for the match that he's trying to put them in. They may be better in that context than in another context and that's what you typically do in free agency unless in the rare case you target a guy and give him most of the money. It's a matter of putting them in a different environment and plugging them in."

It's what Billick has done in this offseason. The Ravens haven't been real active, and he says it's quite probable they could still sign a free-agent veteran quarterback, as well as draft one. But he still thinks they're a better team than the one that finished 7-9 last year with veteran pickups like defensive back Corey Fuller and tackle Orlando Brown. Even a 30-year-old fullback in Harold Morrow.

"We've got a lot of talent in the secondary and what Corey Fuller brings is an attitude. The same with Orlando Brown," Billick said. "Harold Morrow is that one guy who brings your special teams together. We've got good special teams guys, but he's the first guy we've had since Benny Thompson who you can really say gives you one guy who gives you a presence on special teams."

Billick anoints the champion Steelers as the favorites, says the Browns are in transition, and gives his club and the Bengals a chance. Cowher is more cautious, not wanting to tip his hand in the draft. He says his club has to be careful about teams gunning for the kings, and that the Steelers have to stay healthy.

But he did notice the departure of linebacker Takeo Spikes and how Lewis compensated with other signings.

"I thought it was a very solid statement," Cowher said. "Marvin wants guys who want to be there and he's added good football players at key positions. It's pretty self-explanatory."

Do the Bengals win six or seven in Lewis' debut?

"Oh, I think you can be more optimistic than that," Billick said.

He just hopes one of them isn't in the opener.

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