2-12-03, 6:05 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Marvin Lewis has sold at least one Bengals' free-agent. And the effort to close the sale on Pro Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal has already started in an effort to sign him before the start of free agency at the end of the month.
Neal, buoyed by his phone conversation with the new head coach after he returned from last week's Pro Bowl, says he's convinced Lewis has enough at his disposal to restore order in the Bengals' locker room to give him a legitimate shot at turning it around.
Neal is impressed enough with the changes that he has signed off on beginning contracts talks with the club and said he is willing to work with management to build some kind of incentive package that gives him a good raise and the ability to be paid in the NFL's second tier of fullbacks. But he also thinks he'll be attractive on the market and is weighing all sides.
Lewis isn't commenting on numbers, but he likes the idea of incentives, Neal's approach to the game, and getting him in the fold.
"Lorenzo is a mature player," Lewis said. "He knows what has to get done and how to get it done. The Bengals have done a great job with incentive contracts and here's a guy who isn't afraid of them. He knows it's play for pay and not the other way around. That shows you his maturity."
Neal had all but given up on the Bengals and their lack of discipline as he headed home in the wake of Dick LeBeau's removal as head coach. But he got a sense of renewal from Lewis.
"Marvin wants professionalism," Neal said. "He wants guys to act professionally and I know he's not going to have a problem getting respect from the guys. You don't win a Super Bowl with a defense that gives up the least points in a season without being a great coach.
"I know this," Neal said. "He wants to run the ship his way and he's not going to wait. If you're not on board, he'll leave you."
Neal says he's on board, but the Bengals are going to have to pay the ticket. Indications are he wants to be paid in the $1 million range, that second tier of fullbacks where such players as William Henderson, Bob Christian, and Cory Schlesinger reside.
"I'm not looking to break the bank, but I certainly think I am in a class with those guys," said Neal, who made $700,000 last season. "You talk about my age (32) and playing time (about a third of the snaps), but turn on the tape. Don't listen to me. Turn on the tape. You'll see me knocking people over on special teams, too, not just (on offense). I mean, I know I'm not perfect every play. I'm not looking for Mike Alstott money. But you know I'm coming downhill every play and you know I'm going to get something done for the most part."
It remains to be seen what the Bengals will pay for a 32-year-old blocking fullback who doesn't play every down. But Lewis does appreciate his abilities as a former defensive coordinator. He Xed and Oed against Neal's run blocks for three years in Baltimore when Neal played for division foes Tennessee and Cincinnati.
"He's tough on those 3-4 linebackers," Lewis said. "He gets those guys to turn their heads in there in the middle. That's how you have to attack those defenses in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. You have to go after them."
Neal not only thinks Lewis' presence will be uplifting, but he also thinks the return of offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is a big plus because of continuity and Bratkowski's demanding style.
"I just think everything is going to be different because you've got a different head man," Neal said. "But Marvin isn't going to just come in and be a jerk about it and get all over guys. I don't think he'll be that way at all. He will be tough, but he'll be fair."
Neal thinks the Bengals have been good to him in the two years since they picked him up in May of 2001 following following Nick Luchey's season-ending torn ACL knee ligament. He also thinks even though they haven't won much, that his attitude has helped. Not to mention his blocking that has aided running back Corey Dillon in back-to-back 1,300-yard seasons, making it six straight years Neal has blocked for a 1,000-yard runner.
"I got a chance to show what I can do here," Neal said. "We ran the ball, and Brat threw the ball to me a little bit this year. I appreciate that. I'm just looking to get paid what I think I'm worth."
SCREENS AND STUNTS:** The folks in Buffalo expect some kind of definitive word Wednesday one way or the other about former head coach Dick LeBeau signing on as a defensive coach now that Dennis Erickson has been named head coach in San Francisco. If Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache had got the Niners job, LeBeau most likely would have become good friend Dick Jauron's defensive coordinator in Chicago. . .
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has also talked to fullback Nick Luchey as well as fullback Lorenzo
Neal and told him that if Neal does come back, that shouldn't discourage him from re-signing as well because he envisions an expanded role for him.
"Nick is the kind of guy that can put pressure on a defense because he can do so many things," Lewis said. "He can catch, you can move him around to different spots, he's big, he can run." . . .
True to his word, running back Corey Dillon is keeping a low profile this offseason. Neal said he has golfed with him out on the West Coast and thinks he is going to respond well to the hiring of Lewis.
"C.D. was frustrated this year like we all were," Neal said. "But he's a guy who wants to win. That's the bottom line for him. He's committed. I'm not going to speak for him, but I think he'll be revived under a guy like Marvin."