11-20-03, 5:45 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
You half expected Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal to say he's got 41 reasons to beat up the Bengals Sunday in San Diego. When Neal played one of the best fullbacks in the NFL in Cincinnati during the 2001 and 2002 seasons, he usually referred to his uniform number in the first person.
And Neal did admit in Wednesday's conference call with the Cincinnati media that he felt the Bengals slapped him in the face with their contract offers before he signed in San Diego during the first days of free agency back in March.
But he also said he felt good for his ex-mates now that they are in first place in the AFC North, thanked offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterback Jon Kitna for allowing him to display his skills that got him to his first Pro Bowl last season, and praised the discipline that new head coach Marvin Lewis has brought to the Bengals locker room.
"I'm really happy for those guys," Neal said. "Happy for those guys that have come through the bad times. They're my guys."
It's a locker room where he continues to exert influence because he says he speaks with running back Corey Dillon about every other week and has counseled him to "ride the wave," as the Bengals make a run for the playoffs. He seems to be listening.
"He's my guy," Dillon said. "We still talk and our wives are tight."
Neal has no regrets about leaving the 5-5 Bengals and going to the 2-8 Chargers, largely because of money and the ability to play in his native California for the first time in his 11 NFL seasons. But as a leader who experienced the Bengals' problems first-hand last season, he's very supportive of what Lewis is doing here.
"Discipline," said Neal, who signed with the Bengals because he felt they had better talent than the Titans' team that went to last season's AFC championship game. "They just didn't know how to get it out of those guys.
"Now you've got a guy in there who's not accepting mediocrity," Neal said. "Not accepting guys not following the rules and allowing everyone to be their own coach and being late for meetings or not showing up. Marvin will not accept that. You've got a guy implementing those rules and it's 'You're on this ship or off this ship. This ship is sailing with you or without you.'"
The Good Ship Marvin is sailing without Neal even though both tried to get something done in Cincinnati once Lewis was hired Jan. 14. Lewis courted Neal over the phone when Neal was in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl and says now, "We tried to put together a package that made sense for us because as a player and as a leader he's guy you would love to have."
The Bengals had unsuccessfully tried to extend Neal in training camp of 2002, and with Neal turning 33 next month and Lewis trying to fill so many other holes, they just weren't going to budge much from an offer of about $100,000 over the minimum and about $200,000 or so up front. Since he felt he's the best fullback in the NFL and wanted to be paid in at least the second tier at the position, Neal balked. When San Diego came in with what he said was a seven-figure signing bonus and he felt they were going to win, what was there to think about?
Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer agrees with Neal. He thinks Neal and San Francisco's Fred Beasley are the league's best fullbacks. He also agrees with Lewis about his leadership, calling him one of the best leaders he's ever been around.
It's leadership that right tackle Willie Anderson still appreciates because Neal could make you feel both good and bad.
"He told me no matter how bad it got, don't let it pull your own play down and I needed that," Anderson said. "People looked at me as one of the leaders, but sometimes you need a shoulder to lean on and Lorenzo was that shoulder for me.
"He makes you feel bad if you don't go out and knock down two guys yourself," Anderson said. "Here I am 140 pounds more than him blocking a guy and he's knocking down two. Lo thrives on hitting, he's the kind of football player that excites you."
Kitna always felt it.
"His spirit is missed, to me. The things he did in the game were unbelievable," Kitna said. "He would get me in trouble a lot, because I wouldn't carry out my fakes in the running game, because I was trying to follow, and watch him. I'd think, 'What is he going to do to this guy now?' He would just destroy people. He would almost intimidate linebackers in a sense. You just miss that spirit, and tenacity that he had."
Anderson doesn't think the Bengals are in position to wonder if free-agents like Neal and linebacker Takeo Spikes have regrets for moving to teams that at the moment don't have better records than the Bengals. And, believe it, both guys wanted out. Neal's cackle after last season's last game in Buffalo when asked about returning is on tape.
"Yeah," Neal said. "That was bad."
"I'm sure they made decisions they felt were good for them and they've moved on and we've moved on," Anderson said."
Dillon has talked about moving on, but not lately. A reason may be his talks with Neal. Neal also has a good relationship with Rudi Johnson, but he also knows Dillon is a three-time Pro Bowler who is the club's all-time rusher and shouldn't be forgotten.
"Corey Dillon is a great person and at times he's misunderstood because of the things he says," Neal said. "He has a big heart. He's happy for Rudi. He's saying 'I want him to have success.'
"I told him, 'Look, bide your time. Don't be a distraction. Ride this wave, man. Because this opportunity doesn't come along to go to the playoffs. I've been playing 11 years and been there three times. It's hard to get there.
"'Hey, help this team win and after the year, make the decision,'" is what Neal is telling Dillon. " 'Have some success and, shoot, win.'"
Of course Lewis is going to make the decision, but Neal understands Dillon's frustration and how a change of scenery can help revive careers.
"Corey knows Marvin is a good coach," Neal said. "Trust me, Marvin knows Corey is one heck of a back.
Neal has a new venue, but the results are the same. Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson is a sure shot to get 1,000 yards, making it seven straight seasons Neal has supplied lead blocks for a fifth 1,000-yard rusher. (Adrian Murrell, Warrick Dunn, Eddie George, Dillon.) The Bengals know what's coming at them in front of Tomlinson.
"Tell them," said Neal, "to take it easy on the old man."
MARV BALL MEETS MARTY BALL:** Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer meet Sunday in one of sport's all-time great coincidences. Lewis, born Sept. 23, 1958, and Schottenheimer, born Sept. 23, 1943, both played at Fort Cherry High School in McDonald, Pa., for head coach Jim Garry, and now they meet on the West Coast Sunday in the NFL.
They quipped a bit about that in their respective news conferences with the Cincinnati media Wednesday.
"I told the people from San Diego that I hope I get top billing at the Shop and Save," said Lewis, of the atmosphere in McDonald this week. Asked if Schottenheimer should get that because of seniority, Lewis said, "Yeah, no question. (But I have) one Super Bowl ring more than him."
One of Lewis' aunts used to babysit a pre-school Schottenheimer. When asked about the age difference, Schottenheimer said, "I'm 15 years older. I'll impart some wisdom to him and let him give me some of his youth."
But Lewis got pretty serious about Schottenheimer's impact on him as a coach and how it may have indirectly resulted in one of his most important decisions of this season.
Lewis recalled how Schottenheimer called him up to his seat on an airplane taking the Chiefs back to Kansas City after Lewis had finished his 1991 stint as a minority intern coach in training camp.
"I want to thank you for coming. And remember this — if you ever get a chance to be in charge, make sure you listen," Schottenheimer told him. "Because if you don't listen to them and don't hear what they're saying, they quit talking to you, and you've lost them."
As Lewis says now, "That was a hell of a thing for him to say to me at that point, when I wasn't in charge of anything. But he was serious about that."
Lewis says he put that ability to listen to good use when the offensive line shift didn't work out as hoped in this preseason and he shook up the unit for the second game of the season against Oakland after the 30-10 loss to Denver. Coincidence? Since listening to offensive line coach Paul Alexander, the Bengals have either won or lost by a touchdown or less.
"Richie (center Rich Braham) was probably the smartest move I've ever made in listening to somebody, and putting Richie back in there at center," Lewis said.
Schottenheimer, who gave Lewis his home phone number about an hour after he was named head coach and told him to call any time, is impressed with how Lewis teaches.
"He's a tremendous communicator, and that's what teaching is all about," Schottenheimer said. "You have to continue to find different ways to say the same thing and I think he's done that. (Communication) would be the No. 1 quality that has enabled him to get this thing turned around as quickly as they have."
BOARD MATERIAL: A week later, and the Bengals are on the other side of the bulletin board.
Yes, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has made certain his players have seen the quote attributed to Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson in wake of the Chargers falling to 2-8 after Sunday's loss in Denver.
"We play for pride," Tomlinson said. "You play not to get laughed at. Not to be called the Cincinnati Bengals of the league."
A bit surprising because since Tomlinson led the Chargers to a 28-14 victory over Cincinnati in San Diego Sept. 30, 2001 with 107 yards, the Chargers have only won one more game than the Bengals at 12-27 and 11-28, respectively.
Wide receiver Chad Johnson, who has since apologized for guaranteeing last Sunday's win over Kansas City, indicated Lewis has posted the comments.
"I read it up there," Johnson said. "Those days are over what he's saying."
But Lewis also must have told his guys to downplay it because he did with, "We have to go out there and prove him wrong."
"We have had a bad record. That's all I can say," said right tackle Willie Anderson.
Cornerback Artrell Hawkins didn't think the Chiefs changed anything because of Johnson's guarantee and he thinks the Bengals should just ignore what Tomlinson said.
"It's not surprising. They say there's a lot of truth in criticism. We may not want to hear it. It has some validity to it. We're not happy about it, but the past has been the past. One game doesn't erase 12 years of struggles. It's not like we're not used to it. But you can't play trying to take revenge on someone because that takes you out of your game and you won't be sound. We're already fired up this week I don't think we need something like that."
INJURY UPDATE:** CB Jeff Burris (concussion/out) and TE Reggie Kelly (foot/doubtful) are expected to play next week for sure in Pittsburgh. RT Willie Anderson sat out Wednesday, presumably to merely rest some nicks.
QUICK HITS:** Quarterback Jon Kitna showed up at Wednesday's news conference wearing another badge of Marvin Lewis' attempt to unify not just the locker room, but the entire organization with a T-Shirt saying "One Heartbeat." Lewis made sure club employees got the shirts. Even bengals.com. . .
Chad Johnson, Keyshawn Johnson's cousin, expressed shock at Tampa Bay's decision to send Keyshawn home for the rest of the season.
"It would shock anybody in the football world," Chad said. "That type of player. I have no idea. I can't worry about that right now. I'm just trying to go forward with what I'm doing."
Lewis did say it reinforces the coaching creed that no player or person is bigger than team, but he wouldn't comment if the Bengals would be interested in acquiring him next season in a trade.
Of course, Chad did and said, "It would be nice. We'd have to change the offense a little bit, though. We'd have to go shotgun or something."
Johnson flashed a new style at the walk-through and kept on defensive end Duane Clemons' wig during lunch: "Just for the day. I was trying to be low key, but you all noticed it." . . .
ESPN's Tom Jackson spent part of the night working at Paul Brown Stadium Wednesday as the network chronicles Johnson's nocturnal habits that range from walking in on coaches, to studying tape, to sleeping in the players' lounge. . .
The Bengals had trouble on their first series during the 17-14 loss in Arizona with the crowd noise, which took them by surprise because there were only 23,351 in the building. The Bengals didn't work much on a silent count that week, but they have to now because Lewis rolled out a couple of huge speakers for Wednesday's practice and blasted recorded crowd noise at them during plays from scrimmage. . .
TWO OF A KIND? Head coach Marvin Lewis said Wednesday the Bengals are trying to come up with ways to get both Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson into the backfield at the same time, as well as trying to play them both in spots.
"Right now they can until Corey feels 100 percent healthy," Lewis said. "(Dillon) has been very gracious through this whole thing. Particularly his affection for Rudi and what Rudi is doing."
Lewis also indicated he won't name a starter
until Sunday, and that's fine with Dillon.
"He's going to get some carries. I'm going to get some carries. I don't care who starts. That doesn't concern me," Dillon said. "I don't have to start to bust somebody's head open. I don't see there being a conflict of interest. As long as I can come in, be productive, and get some carries, that's all I can ask for."
But Dillon is getting tired of people debating who is the better back. Dillon means no knock against Johnson, but he feels like he's the best back in the league, never mind on his team, when he's healthy.
"Come on, man," Dillon said. "Don't insult my intelligence."
Don't expect any press conferences about his future, though. He says the question is hanging, but now is not the proper time to address it because he says he's looking forward to his first playoff stretch run.
"This is a business. Everybody here is their own business, and we're all into one big business together," Dillon said. "Whatever decision I make or want to make, it's the best for my company and that's how I'm going to look at it. Now is not the time. I'm going to focus on helping my team get to the playoffs."