BY GEOFF HOBSON
These are not your father's Bengals. Heck, these aren't even your Bengals.
On Friday night, the Bengals learned they would now be flying to away games on spacious 757s instead of the cramped 727s. Then today they put on their new practice jerseys and broke ground at their new practice facility as the era of Air Akili and Trans Warrick took off in the shadow of Paul Brown Stadium.
"That's Akili's house, man, I'm just trying to move in," said rookie receiver and No. 1 draft pick Peter Warrick of his new quarterback. "He says he's going to give me a key to the house. He'll give me a suite, so that means it's going to be both our houses."
Bengals President Mike Brown felt the vibes.
"I feel new myself," Brown said on the panoramic patch he has staked his franchise's future. "We're young, but we're talented. I'll tell you, it's going to be a fun process to watch. It's a very interesting time in our history. When you look around and see all the changes, and there are big changes about how we go about things, it would make me feel a lot better if I was involved as a player."
There was no Spinney Field smog, no Carl Pickens glare, no Charlie Brown cloud on what the Bengals hope is the first of many days in the downtown sun. On Friday night in his first team meeting of the season, coach Bruce Coslet called out second-year quarterback Akili Smith to lead the parade and he picked up the torch with a smile.
The one downside is the absence of Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon, locked in a contract stalemate. He has threatened to sit out the first ten games, which could go a long way in grounding the high-flying plans. "We've got to sign our franchise back," said tight end Tony McGee, but that looks to be a summer problem. Not April.
"New jerseys, new towels, new fields, a new stadium," Smith said, wrapped in a huge beach towel, after today's first minicamp practice. "It's right there for you to see with all the green grass out there. Then we come back (to Spinney Field) and there's Montgomery Inn ribs waiting for us. (Bengals President) Mike Brown is going all out to treat us right. Now it's time for us to put it out for him on the field."
In a locker room that was a tomb of negativity last season, Warrick and fellow Florida State receiver Ron Dugans lobbied to put in the 40-yard touchdown play that beat Florida last season.
"Three 44 Ron Dugans, that was the call," said Warrick of a pass he threw to Dugans off a reverse. "I said, "Hey, if somebody's on you, I'm throwing it anyway. I know he's a big receiver. He's tall, he can jump and he can make the play."
"I had to wait on it," Dugans said.
"That's because I overthrew him the last time," Warrick said.
Later, veteran kicker Doug Pelfrey swept his eyes around the two new grass practice fields and the new Astroturf field and said, "Every minicamp is new, but this goes beyond new."
The day was a snapshot of the future, but Brown recalled the not-so-distant past.
"We're grateful for all the people's efforts that made this possible and those people are legion," he said. "The whole county is involved. Once people see it as we're seeing it today, I think they're going to be glad abut it."
The Bengals have found out in the free agency era that first-class is the only way players want to go. Their biggest rap around the NFL is they are player unfriendly. But McGee, one of the few remaining players from 1993 when the Bengals dressed in what is now their cafeteria at Spinney, observed, "It's more of a first-class organization. I'm not going to say it's going to translate in more wins, but when you do things first class you get first-class results."
Coslet saluted the attention to little things, but he knows this make-or-break season rests with the development of Smith, which is why he called him out in the meeting and told him the Bengals are relying on him. Coslet also told his team that everyone else in the room had to watch Smith's back and support him. Then Coslet watched today as Smith flawlessly called out each formation, and even corrected others when he wasn't in the play.
"He couldn't have done that last year," Coslet said.
Smith didn't bat an eye when Coslet pointed at him. In fact, "It relaxed me, it settled me in. He believes in me. I believe in the system. I've been watching (the tapes from last season) and virtually on every play a guy is open if the quarterback goes through his progressions and gets it to the right guy."
Right tackle Willie Anderson thinks his offensive line is going to have to be the unit that holds up for Smith.
"We have to go into training camp putting the pressure on ourselves," Anderson said. "If he doesn't have to worry about getting his head knocked off and his protection is safe, that gives him less to worry about as a young quarterback ... it's his first year, really, and while he's learning we've got to make sure he doesn't get shell-shocked like David Klingler, then I think he'll be all right."
What is all right to many of the skill players is that Smith says the coaches are seriously talking about using a three-receiver set more than usual. Smith likes the idea of spreading the field, as does flanker Darnay Scott. As the speed receiver and No. 1 threat, Scott is usually double-teamed. Even in a two-receiver set, the No. 2 guy can also get doubled.
"But with three, they've got to put a (linebacker) on one of us and a backer can't cover these boys running 4.4 (seconds in the 40-yard dash)."
With Pickens excused from camp, Warrick lined up in his spot opposite Scott's stretch-the-field speed, which got Scott thinking about that six-yard hitch pattern Warrick can break all the way: "Who you going to take? Warrick can make them miss with one or two moves he goes down the field. If they try to contain that, you've got me over the top on the post. Who knows?"
The Bengals think they know Warrick is the real thing. He got ripped for his 40-yard dash times before the draft, but the Bengals were impressed with his three 40s on Saturday, ranging from 4.51 to 4.61 seconds on windy turf.
"He's fast enough to be a big-time receiver in this league," Brown said. "We didn't have many guys outrun him. He's a 4.5 guy. If you took the top 10 wideouts in this league, I don't know if half of them would be as fast as he is."
Warrick and his Bengals hope the new, fast times of April have enough steam in September.