8-21-03, 4:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON _
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ The Bengals broke from Georgetown College Thursday morning in a training camp Marvin Lewis never broke stride.
Now as they hit the homestretch in preparation for the Sept .7 regular-season opener against Denver with Marvin Gardens moving back to Paul Brown Stadium for Friday's walk-through, their identity under their new coach as a scrappy, physical underdog coming up on the rail of the AFC North is coming into focus.
"It was a smartly-run camp," said middle linebacker Kevin Hardy, who helped set the tone when he got into a scrap on the first play in full pads way back on July 29. "We worked hard in the morning and pulled it back in the afternoons. He tried his best to take care of guys. We didn't have a lot of guys go down, and that's an indicator things went well. It reminds me of some of the things we did in Jacksonville. You have to have hard work, intensity, that physical play. This is the NFL. That's what works."
This was the camp Lewis re-introduced double sessions, more contact, and longer days that started with 8:45 a.m. practices. But the only player lost to surgery was linebacker Tito Rodriguez, and veteran linebacker Brian Simmons said his legs felt as good as when he reported 25 days ago on July 27.
Even before he pulled back this last week on Wednesday and Thursday, Lewis adjusted his schedule to address the struggling running game and sent them through about 25 contact runs on Tuesday morning.
But Lewis also worked on the historically fragile psyche of this team during camp in an effort to form team chemistry. "He wants guys to take care of each other and that's what we're trying to do,' Hardy said.
Last Friday, the day before they beat the Lions, 23-10, he took the team that in the past has needed 45 cabs for 45 guys, to see "Seabiscuit," the hit movie about the long-shot horse. Wednesday night, the bonding attempt continued in the "Rookie Show." Hazing,
once outlawed in these parts, took the form of the veterans laughing at themselves when they got lampooned. Then after Thursday's practice, Freud's favorite team lined up to watch running back Corey Dillon blow away wide receiver Chad Johnson in a 100-yard challenge in which Johnson spotted Dillon 10 yards. Johnson broke stride about 30 yards from the finish in a race Dillon led for about 20 yards.
"I just wanted to shut up Chad because he'd been talking about it all week," Dillon said. "It was an insult. I don't think he thinks I'm very fast."
Dillon, who took the name "War Emblem," seemed to be smiling, and Johnson did, too, as he got ripped by his backers for deciding to run in just socks. He named himself "Seabiscuit," but he is now, "Shoeless Chad." Lewis was definitely smiling and shaking his head.
"I knew then nobody would get hurt," said Lewis when he saw the shoes come off. "Chad gave him 10 yards, which is hard for these guys to overcome. I think, what's the word? Chad has a little bigger, feels pretty good about himself."
After watching rookie linebacker Khalid Abdullah imitate him in the show, Dillon was rolling in the aisles. He also thought rookie quarterback Carson Palmer was superb as Bengals President Mike Brown.
"The kid who played me should get an Oscar," Dillon said. "I just raced Chad so he would leave me alone. But as far as (Lewis) letting us compete like that, I thought that was pretty cool. That doesn't usually happen around here. It shows that he's pretty flexible and he'll let us have fun once in awhile and that business is first."
Dillon didn't want to get into specifics about Abdullah's script ("You don't want to know,"), but he liked the idea.
"We've never done anything like that and I thought it was good," Dillon said. "It was a bonding thing, a team thing. It shows we can laugh and enjoy each other just hanging out."
Veteran linebacker Adrian Ross stole the show in a cameo with his depiction of Lewis. He thought about the chemistry question last night when he saw a lot of players at Applebee's after the show and before curfew.
"There is a lot more mixing with the offense and defense than there has been," Ross said. "It's kind of neat to see guys hanging out together. The show didn't get anyone mad. He said it before it happened. If you've got a thin skin, you better not watch it."
Lewis is adamant in his belief that chemistry doesn't come about just because you win. He thinks teams win because of it.
"People that are smarter than me says its very important to learn how to cry together and laugh together," Lewis said. "The more time they spend around each other in fellowship, the more they care about each other and are invested in each other."
Hence, the idea of going to the movies. Which, by the way, used to be a Paul Brown staple the night before a game.
"It got them out of the meetings and gave them some time together to fellowship," Lewis said. "There were a couple of lessons to be learned. No. 1, stick to your plan and good things will happen. No.2, is how determination was an important part of it. The guy coming from nowhere and how all three people had a different journey to play a part in that drama.
Hardy, who spent six seasons in Jacksonville and last year in Dallas, sees exactly what Lewis is doing.
"It was just a way to get us together as a team and break up the monotony of meetings," Hardy said. "You can still hear guys talking about it and when the word, 'Seabiscuit," comes up, everybody can relate to it as a team because we saw it as a team. It's a bonding point for us and hopefully we can carry it over into the season."
But, of course, it all depends on how Lewis has trained them for the long run. Linebacker Brian Simmons thinks he's putting the saddle on at just the right time.
"It was a more focused camp, a camp that had some direction. Had purpose," Simmons said. "We worked hard, but I feel fresh. Before, people thought we were out of shape. But I don't think it was that we were out of shape, but we were beat up and tired when we broke camp. You never got your legs back.
"For whatever reason," Simmons said, "we put in a lot of work, we worked hard. But this is the last day and I feel just as fresh and good as the day I reported."