8-5-02, 7:10 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ (This look at the offensive line is the first in a series breaking down the Bengals by position.)
LOCKS: C Rich Braham, LG Matt O'Dwyer, LT Richmond Webb, RG Mike Goff, RT Willie Anderson, LT Levi Jones.
ON THE BUBBLE: C Brock Gutierrez, G Scott Rehberg, G-T Victor Leyva, G-T Jamain Stephens, LT John Jackson, G Thatcher Szalay, C Ray Redziniak, T Justin Bland.
That's the way offensive line coach Paul Alexander views his roster shakedown, not knowing if he'll be able to keep one more or one less than the traditional 10. Or 10.
"Even if I knew how it's going to come out, I wouldn't tell you," Alexander said. "But honestly, I don't know how it's going to come out. I could make an argument that with the exception of Levi Jones, every single player is on the bubble for the back up spots because people can be moved around. However it ends up, there is going to be a worthy NFL player who is going to be cut. Maybe two."
Gutierrez and Rehberg appeared to come off the bubble Monday morning when they agreed to contract extensions through 2004, which would put them at eight locks. Alexander wouldn't say they are, but he did say, "They're both worthy of continuing on our team. Every time they go in there, you never worry about them."
Gutierrez, a college free agent, and Rehberg, a seventh-round pick, are both 28 and self-made players out of Alexander's old stomping grounds at Central Michigan. And they fit his philosophy.
"You're better off keeping the guys that know the system instead of going after a guy who is slightly better athletically," Alexander said. "There's so much coordination and timing and cohesiveness. They play as a unit and individual mismatches don't really show up."
Anderson, the first alternate AFC Pro Bowl right tackle last year, heads into his seventh season knowing exactly what the only NFL position coach he has ever had is talking about.
"I've always waited for this moment," Anderson said. "Paul is
is not treating us like second- and third-year players in this camp. He's allowed us to become a veteran line. He's not always going on about the small stuff and that's the definition of a veteran. A guy who doesn't have to be told to take care of the small stuff."
Now Anderson is reminding the line to break from the huddle in a quick tempo so Alexander won't get irked, and reminding guys the importance of hustling for that back-side block that can break open a game. He senses that what dogged the line in the miserable 24-0 loss to the Bears in which they rushed for a season-low 35 yards is being rectified as the linemen become more comfortable with the offense in the second year of the system.
"I'm tired of being a second tier player to the defense," Anderson said. "They've been great. We can't let them die out there when they're making all those stops. We have to supplement them."
The last time the Bengals went into a training camp with an offensive line intact from the previous season? 2000. And although it was not a good season protecting the passer from the left side, the Bengals were the second-best rushing team in the NFL.
Last year, the addition of Webb allowed them to give up just 28 sacks while protecting for a team-record 602 passes for the fourth fewest sacks in team history.
"Paul and management have done a good job keeping guys and still going out and getting other guys," Anderson said. "Lines that stay together do some things. Look what the Bears did last year."
Who exactly the reserves will be is now the story. The 37-year-old Jackson, who is heading into his 15th season on the injured list as he recovers from the effects of an angiogram, isn't expected to play Friday night and the club will closely monitor how he comes back to practice next week.
Leyva, a second-year player and fifth-round pick, is locked in a duel with seven-year veteran Jamain Stephens for the job of the backup right guard and tackle. Leyva's age could be with him here, but Stephens is a big man to move out of there in the 340-pound range.
The Bengals are also taking a close look at guard Thatcher Szalay, a free-agent rookie from Montana they think might be able to eventually play center. If they cut him, he'll probably be hard to keep around on the practice squad because he says 22 teams contacted him after the draft. It took the Bengals the four and a half hours following the draft to fend off two teams who offered him more and a couple of more that offered the same.
"My agent told me he thought this was the best chance for me," Szalay said. "I'm getting a better feel for it. I feel better than I did at minicamp, but I could be 100 percent and still get cut."