Neal backs Lewis

1-28-03, 3:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Marvin Mania has now officially hit the 50 states.

Lorenzo Neal, the Bengals' lone Pro Bowler, arrived in Hawaii Monday night and his peers congratulated him twice. First, for bringing his blue-collar fullback play to the red carpet Pro Bowl for the first time in his workman 10-year career.

"I feel like "The Jeffersons," like I finally got a piece of the pie," said Neal after a rare first-class flight with the Dolphins' Ricky Williams and the 49ers Jeff Garcia. "It's 60 degrees at six in the morning, the hotel is like a castle, and I hope this rush never ends."

Second, for the Bengals' hire of Marvin Lewis, even if Neal doesn't know if he'll be back in free agency.

But one thing Neal knew Tuesday morning as he did his running along Ko'Olina Beach. The presence of Lewis and his nine new assistant coaches has him open to the idea of returning, which is a marathon away from where he was the day Dick LeBeau got fired.

"The players and coaches over here are really high on him," Neal said. "They say he's a guy who can make a difference. Sure, I'd like to play for him. Who wouldn't? They can say what they want about the Brown family, but they're making changes in the right direction. Hiring a guy like Marvin and bringing in his coaches of free will, whether they sign me back or not, it shows a commitment. Now everyone has to buy into it."

Neal didn't hide his displeasure as he walked out the door Dec. 30. He wanted to see concrete changes and some kind of purge of the elements involved in 12 straight years without a playoff berth.

"I needed to see something positive about the direction," Neal said.

Lewis, who has already talked to his most important free agent on defense in linebacker Takeo Spikes, would also like to talk to Neal. He isn't comfortable yet talking about personnel because he's still watching tape, but he knows he could use Neal, his most important free agent on offense.

"He's a guy who has played well here and we'd like to get him back if we can," Lewis said.

Of course, the unspoken thing there is money. Neal has to find out if there is a $1 million market for a 32-year-old Pro Bowl blocking fullback who is on the field less than half the snaps. The Bengals have to decide if that is worth more than just over the $750,000 minimum.

Now, Neal is playing in Sunday's Pro Bowl for a coaching staff that may not mind getting him back. He is reunited with a Titans' team that went 26-6 with Eddie George rushing for 2,813 yards behind Neal. In the two seasons since Neal went to Cincinnati, George has logged 700 yards less with 2,104. The Titans wanted to cut Neal's salary in 2001. Will they pay him more in 2003 with a $3 million increase in the salary cap?

"Those guys haven't said anything to me about that. It hasn't come up," Neal said. "I'm not using this game as a showcase. I've been showing what I can do for 10 years now. This game is just a chance to enjoy it."

For the moment, Neal is enjoying the riches of hard work. Or, as he says, "The Average Joe going to paradise. I don't normally fly first class because I don't have any money and there I am with Ricky and Jeff Garcia."

Then when they landed, there was the traditional lei-around-the-neck-and-kiss. Then a ride to the secluded Ihilani resort, complete with private beach, golf course and walking trails.

"Treat you like a king," Neal said.

Then came a quick AFC team meeting, a ball signing, and a welcome party at the pool where Neal bumped into a lot of old friends, which you have when you've been on five teams. Chiefs tackle Willie Roaf, his fellow rookie on the 1993 Saints. Texans cornerback Aaron Glenn, his teammate on the Jets. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, the schoolboy who hung around his Dad's Saints before he left New Orleans for Tennessee.

"It was nice because I didn't think a lot of guys knew who I was," Neal said. "But a lot of them told me I deserved to be here, that it was about time, and that made me feel good. People feel genuinely happy for me."

Which is how Neal seems to think about the Lewis move. Like many of his mates, Neal thinks the team needs a massive jolt of discipline and that players need a wake-up call.

"You've got the chief in Marvin," Neal said. "A chief who has been around. Now you just need some generals to help the chief. We've got the foot soldiers. Now maybe get some free-agent veterans to help lead. You know Marvin is the kind of guy who knows what veteran safety to go after and he will. And he'll be able to get guys."

But Neal also knows Lewis is looking at tape.

"He's looking to see who's quitting in the fourth quarter, who's playing hard every snap and who's being productive," Neal said. "Maybe he won't want me around after watching tape, or everybody will have to come into camp and have to earn a position. I would love that. I have no problem with that. That's the way."

But free agency doesn't start until five weeks from Tuesday. Minicamp is another five weeks after that. For now, Neal's blue collar has stars on the shoulder pads.

"I'm standing here in the middle of the street in Hawaii," said Neal, as if he still couldn't believe it, "signing autographs."

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