1-19-04, 10:15 a.m.
MOBILE, Ala. _ Marvin Lewis turned the hype into mush in the time it takes to add a zero.
"Anyone know," Lewis asked the best senior football players in the nation, "how much a practice squad player in the National Football League made last year?"
Some of the heads stayed down, glued to their new playbooks. Some of the heads bobbed on a swivel and stared at the ceiling.
"$80,000," Lewis answered for them. Then he asked, "Anyone know what the minimum salary was in the National Football League last year?"
Playbooks. Bob. Swivel. Ceiling.
"225,000. First-year Player," Lewis answered for them, then pondered aloud how many of their classmates would come close to that in the next year.
"What an opportunity for you," he mused.
"We're here to help you. That's what we do as coaches. To make you the best football player you can be."
Sunday night. A foggy winter evening on the Gulf Coast at the Adam's Mark Hotel, and Lewis introduced himself and the rest of the Bengals' coaches to the North seniors that they will coach in Sunday's Senior Bowl. They took two hours to run through the rules, the huddle, the cadence, and the run game in a brisk infomercial for Football 101.
But Lewis gave the kids who had spent the last season being courted by bowl scouts, feted by agents, and celebrated by the media a bonus. He gave them the grittier side of the NFL.
Earlier in the meeting, he had smiled and said. "I volunteered to coach this game. We want to see you guys up close because when the Cincinnati Bengals draft you, you're around us 24, 7. Selfishly, we're trying to get better as a football team."
After one of the five busiest days of his life, Bowling Green quarterback Josh Harris was still fresh enough to realize what had just happened.
"The coach has to set the tone and that's what he did," Harris said. "This is the NFL and not college. We're not stars any more. We're rookies again. I think he did a good job of kind of giving guys the wake-up call."
We're going to check in with Harris nearly every day this week for his Senior Bowl experiences because he's one of the guys that doesn't have to be told very much. He's bright, charismatic, a true quarterback, and when running backs coach Jim Anderson told him he remembered him running around as a little kid, his eyes lit up and said, "I remember some of that."
But not much. His father, tight end M.L. Harris, last played for the Bengals in 1985, when Josh couldn't have been much more than four or five. But he'll no doubt remember Lewis telling the room to never owe anybody anything.
"How many here don't have an agent?" Lewis
asked and when no one seemed to raise their hand, he spun around in amazement to look at his coaches.
"Wow," he said.
Then he said. "How many guys had agents who told them, 'I'll get you drafted?" When no one raised their hand, he said, "No one gets you drafted but you."
He should know. Lewis is preparing to oversee his second NFL draft as a head coach. Look for more Kelley Washingtons and Dennis Weathersbys and Khalid Abdullahs.
"Be fast and physical," Lewis said. "The two Fs." When no one laughed, he said, "They didn't get it, Coach."
But he wanted to leave them with more than a joke. He advised them not to leave their schools and coaches to go train with an expensive workout guru that is now the rage for players prepping for the draft. Stick with the people you know. They've known you three, four, five years.
"Never be in debt to anybody," he told them.
He advised them to show up at every meeting with pencils, to show up dressed appropriately at off-field events. To treat Monday's weigh-in with respect. Somewhere along the way, another NFL coach would ask the Bengals about you. How was he in meetings? Did he listen? Or was he just a long for the ride?
"Hey," Lewis said almost as an afterthought on the weigh-in. "Don't have your shorts hanging down around your (butt.) On the field, we tuck in our shirts. You're in the NFL now. Act like a pro."
Then they went from etiquette to the trenches when Lewis told them to break and the offensive and defensive coordinators took over the meetings. With offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski going over the huddle, the cadence, and the formations, and offensive line coach Paul Alexander flipping through the run plays and the pass protections on the overhead, Harris scribbled furiously in his playbook.
Even on the run plays, when Bratkowski only looked at the quarterbacks once to remind them that their depth on one play was crucial on the handoff.
"The big thing for me in this game," Harris said, "is to limit the mistakes. There are three quarterbacks, so in the time that you're in the game, you've got to do things right."
Bratkowski, coaching his third Senior Bowl in nine years, was terrific. He advised them to be early everywhere because of the hotel's notorious slow elevators.
"You better find the freight elevators," he said.
It looked like Harris jotted that down.
Then, with a glint in his eye, Bratkowski asked, "What team do we play for?"
A little uncertainty. "The Bengals?" someone asked.
"The North," Bratkowski said triumphantly. "Where are we? The South. Everybody is going to their practices and watching them. We're the underdog."
How basic is Football 101?
Harris and his fellow quarterbacks, Michigan's Jon Navarre and Washington's Cody Pickett, took turns standing up in front of the offense practicing the cadence, with Bratkowski gently, but firmly, trying to get them to get it right. Here was Harris, measured and clear, Navarre loud and quick, and Pickett steady and slightly drawling, all trying to get it the same.
"Better," he said, as they all tried to get a handle on the hard count. "A little more pause in the between the hut-huts," he told Harris. "Get it in a rhythm. That's good. Don't worry, we'll get it right."
After meeting with quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese for another half-hour, Harris headed wearily to his room.
"Attention to detail is what does it," Harris said. "If the cadence is off, it's all off."
Asked what he planned to do with the rest of his evening, the newlywed of six months got off the snap count.
"Better call the wife," he said of Tammy. "On the road. Away. Better call the wife."
The kid looked to have it figured out after a one night crash-course in everything from Xs and Os to Ps and Qs.