9-13-01, 7:55 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals fullback Lorenzo Neal loved playing for head coach Jeff Fisher the past two seasons in Tennessee.
He loved the man's intensity and success and saw how he would fire up his team by finding anything negative written about his Titans and billboarding it with his hi-liter.
So maybe that's why Neal declined to comment on what Fisher had to say in a conference call Wednesday when asked if Tennessee missed Neal's blocking in its running game. Since Neal refused to take a pay cut from the Titans after last season and moved into free agency, Fisher has emphasized Neal wasn't a full-time player.
But in Sunday night's opener, Pro Bowl running back Eddie George managed just 49 yards on 18 carries in the loss to Miami.
"No," said Fisher when asked if Neal's absence had affected the run. "Lorenzo (was) probably involved in the running game 15 to 20 to 25 percent of the time. We didn't feature a two-back running game all the time. We struggled the last two years with Lorenzo.
"As a matter of fact, Eddie averaged only 54 yards a game in September in '99, then in 2000 he got up to 70 yards a game in September. Those years were with Lorenzo, so we just, for whatever reason, if I knew what it was, we've struggled in the run game. You're always going to miss a good player like Lorenzo, not having him, but Lorenzo is not strictly the reason we got off to a slow start."
Fisher did say the Titans miss Neal's locker room presence and toughness, but also observed strangely, "He wouldn't always block the right guy, but he'd do it 100 miles per hour."
If Fisher is trying to get Neal to respond with a hi-lite quote, Neal isn't biting.
He's saying all the right
things. Neal is saying this week isn't a personal vendetta. He's saying the Bengals are going to have their hands full with a team that has gone 13-3 the past two seasons and is looking to rebound.
But when asked by the Tennessee media in a conference call Wednesday, Neal couldn't hide the disappointment about being asked to take a pay cut.
"I loved Tennessee, loved the community and loved playing for Coach Fisher.," Neal said.
"He's a great coach. Like I said, I enjoyed being there. But if you come to a
person who's been a hard worker, who is going to give you everything he has, who's playing hard for you and go all out, I just didn't think they would come to me like that."
Neal, who was making about $1 million per year with the Titans and is making about $700,000 with the Bengals this season, left for a variety of reasons.
"I think it was a combination. . .," Neal said. " I think it was a situation where if a person's making [a lot]. Let's face it, we're in the National Football League, so it's great to be in a position ... This is not an ordinary job.
"We're blessed to be in this league and some of us as players we take it for granted. . .(we're) blessed to make the money we make. But if a person is making a dollar and is asked to take 50 cents out of that dollar, I'm not going to be as apt to do that. If I'm making a dollar and you want 50 cents of it, that's a big cut. If you're making a dollar and someone wants three cents or 10 cents out of it – I'm just using those numbers – then you're more apt to do that. I was not a guy that was a $2-, $3- or $4-million guy."
Neal got extremely close to some of his Tennessee teammates, particularly George and safety Blaine Bishop, and still has a home there. Neal is proud that George had a career year behind him in 2000 with 1,509 yards and that he helped the Titans get to the Super Bowl the year before that. But he's not surprised there is no fullback on the Tennessee roster because the Titans like to spread the formations as well as use two tight ends.
"I'm getting some more playing time. I don't know how many plays I played,"
said Neal of this season in Cincinnati, "but I think I'm on the field a little more than I was there probably."
In comparing the two teams, Neal told the Tennessee media he thinks Bengals President Mike Brown is trying to get the franchise turned around.
"This team has won 10 games in the last three years," Neal said. "Let's face it, this has not been a winning organization for awhile since the early '90s and the '80s when they went to two Super Bowls. It's different, but I think that with Coach (Dick) LeBeau being here and wanting to win and trying to change the attitude around here.
"And being here with the Browns, the owner, and seeing how the Browns, the family, you look at it and you (know they want) to win. They're committed. The owner is on the field every day watching practice. They're out there, and they want to win. The town and the community are tired of losing, and I think this is a place that is going to see some upside."
SMITH WORKS:** Justin Smith will always remember his first day as a pro. Amid the off-field hubbub, Smith quietly worked with the backup units as the elephant end on defense.
Smith showed enough during his first day in pads that if the Bengals play Sunday, he'll be probably be activated Friday. The Bengals could use an extra lineman because end Vaughn Booker (bruised thigh) is questionable.
"I think he was a little nervous, a little jumpy, but he he looked good," said defensive line coach Tim Krumrie. "The other guys have had it for five, six
weeks, so for them it's the case of habit for them.
"That's where he has to get to," Krumrie said. "I'm feeding him a little bit, but I'm not going to be out there with him Sunday telling him, 'This is coming next. This is coming next.' He'll be fine."
Smith said he felt strong and fast and was surprised that he didn't feel much soreness.
"I'm trying to take it a day at a time," Smith said. "I'm just concentrating on what I have to do in the defense and get better every day. I think the physical stuff is already there."
Smith expressed relief at finally getting on the field for the first time since the end of the 51-day holdout on Saturday: "That's why I'm here. Football."