Offseason off and running

12-30-03, 9 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

His players are thankful for the season Marvin Lewis cleared the air around the Bengals.

But as he heads into his second season as head coach, his players sensed there could even be more changes greeting them when they return for minicamp in the spring.

"Some of that stink is still around here. You can still smell it in close games like that," said right tackle Willie Anderson of Sunday's closing 22-14 loss to the Browns. "We need passionate guys that love football no matter what."

Anderson was saying good-bye to running back Corey Dillon, but he was also envisioning what kind of players will be added to the roster. A total of 35 players who were here in some fashion for last year's finale weren't around for this one.

"I'm sure that's the kind of player Marvin has coached his whole NFL career," Anderson said. "That's why I'm excited. I was excited when he came here last January, and I'm excited about the things he's going to do this whole entire offseason. I know he's going to bring some warriors that are out there with him."

Lewis has had a theme every day the coaches have been with the players since he took over Jan. 14, and Monday's day-after message was hammered home as such. First in a team meeting, and then in brief one-on-one meetings with each player:

Finding more warriors. Building more mental toughness. Keeping the edge, the focus, the hunger for all 16 games. The key for turning around a 1-3 December that cost this team a chance at ending the NFL's longest playoff drought at 13 seasons.

But Lewis also asked his players not to listen to the critics, and to take pride in what they accomplished in bringing playoff-caliber football back to Cincinnati.

The players are definitely going to change. He said he has no plans to make changes in his coaching staff.

"We just need to play with confidence," said defensive tackle John Thornton, who was talking about a defense that struggled down the stretch but could have been talking about the entire team. "I think once we lost that game in Baltimore (Dec. 7), we kind of got down once we lost the (division) lead.

"The coaches were showing us the film last week," Thornton said. "They showed us games from earlier in the year and how when we were making plays, we were jumping around and excited. And then they showed the games from now and we had kind of taken the excitement away. We were afraid to make mistakes. We just have to get tougher mentally, that's all."

At his Monday news conference, Lewis emphasized defensive help, particularly in the secondary, but the running back situation wasn't far from the top of the list. Barely had Dillon's last article of clothing settled in the stands than Lewis said re-signing restricted free agent Rudi Johnson was a priority.

Johnson, the team's leading rusher with 957 yards, leads a list that also includes eight unrestricted free agents. Among the most high profile are starters at safety in Mark Roman and Rogers Beckett, right guard Mike Goff, and center Rich Braham, as well as key backups in running back Brandon Bennett and defensive tackle Glen Steele. Others without contracts are guard Matt O'Dwyer and backup quarterback Shane Matthews.

Lewis stayed mum on Dillon's post-game

demand to be traded or released, saying only that Dillon has two more years left on his contract. But teammates like Johnson said they hope he goes where he is happy. Teammates like Anderson said they hope he just goes if he no longer wants to be here, and said it just may help clear the air.

"I already know he's going to bring in changes because he already changed 2-14 and this whole place was stinking," Anderson said. "But it still smells a little bit. There was a lot of funky things around here. I'm sure he smells them too, he'll clean it up."

It turned out that Johnson was a breath of fresh air. He headed back to his new house in Virginia Beach, Va., Monday knowing he'll be getting a substantial raise with a 2004 salary probably of at least between $1.5 and $2 million, the offer the Bengals have to give him to make him first-round compensation and retain their right to match any offers.

"Of course I want to come back," said Johnson, who says he has no opinion when it comes to how the Bengals dole out the carries. "The coaches tell me what to do, if that's split the carries, that's split the carries."

But it was clear the Bengals were at their best when either Johnson or Dillon got the bulk of the carries. In only two of the eight wins (in San Diego and in Pittsburgh), when Dillon got 28 carries and Johnson got 27, did the Bengals win breaking up the load. In the one game they won in December, Johnson had 22 carries and Dillon nine against the Niners. In the three December losses, neither of them had 15 carries in a game. In six of the wins, either Dillon or Johnson had at least 15 carries while the other had single digits.

But Lewis said he liked the rotation because there isn't a "drop-off," when there is a change because they have similar running styles.

Still, there is clearly the impression that Johnson is not only going to be the No. 1 back next season, but the highest paid.

"I'm more excited about getting on the field and playing at a high level," said Johnson, who had carried just 15 times in his previous two seasons. "It's been awhile. It's been two years. And it started off slow for me (late in preseason with a thigh bruise). I wish it ended better."

Johnson shrugged when asked about Dillon's post-game comments.

"I guess he's trying to get to where he wants to get to," Johnson said. "Good luck to whatever he's trying to do."

What Johnson is trying to do is get back home to see how his family is enjoying his Christmas gifts. He bought about 100 of the hot-selling, "Rudi, Rudi, Rudi," T-Shirts with his picture on the front, and had to go to about two of three different stores to get them all.

Where Lewis will go shopping to bring in some new payers remains to be seen. The free-agents-to-be said they haven't had discussions with the team yet, and teams can't publicly discuss other free agents because of tampering. But both Anderson and quarterback Jon Kitna expect more interest in the Bengals on the market because of this year's turnaround.

"We got some positive attention media wise this year, and we've got a group of veterans in this locker room," Kitna said. "The thing I was worried about last year more than personnel was attitude, but the attitude has changed."

Anderson smiled when he thought about his buddy in Atlanta, former Steelers safety Lee Flowers. Flowers had spent his career razzing Anderson and Spikes about playing in Cincinnati, but now that he's on the street and watching the new Bengals, Anderson had a nice conversation with him in a barbershop a few weeks ago.

"He said if Marvin wanted him, he'd love to play here," Anderson said.

Lewis planned to meet with his coaches and personnel people Tuesday to evaluate the existing roster. And they will evaluate everyone.

For example, they have $3.4 million sunk into cornerbacks Jeff Burris and Artrell Hawkins for '04 as both head into their final seasons. Burris lost his starting job to Hawkins late in the season because of health reasons, but Lewis highly regards the knowledge he brings to the secondary.

But on Monday, Lewis sent a clear message to the '03 rookie class on defense about needing to have a break-through season in '04. One of those getting the message had to be rookie cornerback Dennis Weathersby, who barely played, as well as special teams ace Khalid Abdullah, an outside linebacker.

Burris knows the team is worried about him after he missed a month in the middle of the season because of a concussion, but he thinks he's healthy, and thinks he played better in the last two weeks because he was able to get back into condition.

"I know they have to have concerns," Burris said. "I feel good. We'll see what happens. In this league, there are always questions about job security."

While Anderson on Monday gave Dillon the brush off by reiterating his "good riddance," take, he stopped by the locker of rookie fullback Jeremi Johnson. He talked to Johnson about his off-season plans, urging him to commit fully to the work-out room. He was delighted to hear that Johnson is sticking around Cincinnati because his home is only about 90 minutes away in Louisville.

"That's good for a young player. A young player needs that," Anderson said. "When I was a rookie, no one ever talked to me after the season. This guy is a big, explosive fullback. I was telling him not to accept being average. Don't accept being mediocre. Don't just be an average Joe picking up a paycheck. Be great. If you don't go to the Pro Bowl, you ought to be burning up inside."

Now, Lewis starts trying to find a way to get above the 8-8 average.

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