BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson isn't into democracy. The dean of the Bengals coaching staff likes strong-arm rulers. Ask him about this "back-by-committee,'' stuff and he alerts the palace guard.
"Back by committee?" he asked today, the first day of what looks to be the post-Corey Dillon era. "I never understood what that meant. Back by committee? What's that mean? Some guys will play more than they have in the past, and if a guy has a skill like catching the ball, we'll put him in. But when it comes to running the ball, this won't be a turnstile. One guy will emerge, a guy who is going to be the designated starter. A guy who is going to get more carries than the others."
The club is taking Dillon's threat to sit out the first 10 games seriously, but it is stepping gingerly back into the free-agent waters with the idea of still keeping room under the salary cap to extend Dillon. If the Bengals can find a player interested in a small bonus and a minimum salary, they would probably do a deal.
At some point soon, Dillon's agent, Marvin Demoff, figures to ask the Bengals for permission to find a trade for his disgruntled client. Bengals President Mike Brown probably won't give it this soon in the process because he's not sure what he wants in return, but clearly the team is looking at their present running backs to fill the void left by Dillon
Brandon Bennett, coming off reconstructive knee surgery, is lining up as the No. 1 back these days with Michael Basnight just back on the field from a bruised knee. Bennett is 27, but his 14 career games are two less than the 16 games Basnight played last season as a college free agent rookie out of North Carolina A&T. Sedrick Shaw has played 18 games for three teams in three years. There are guys out there on the waiver wire, but the club thinks they're comparable to the guys they already have and they know the system.
Which is why you shouldn't pencil in fourth-round pick Curtis Keaton out of tiny James Madison for Sept. 10 in Paul Brown Stadium.
"Longshot," said Anderson of Keaton's chance to start the regular-season opener. "The challenge for him is to learn the offense. He's got a lot to learn and the other guys have already played in it."
The last time the Bengals went into a season with no clear-cut bell cow in the backfield was probably back in 1984, when Anderson was a NFL rookie himself. In Anderson's first year on the staff, Cincinnati traded Pete Johnson to San Diego for James Brooks and while Brooks would go on to become the club's all-time leading rusher, he needed time to learn the playbook.
Fullback Larry Kinnebrew led the team with 154 carries, tailback-type Charles Alexander had 132, Brooks 103 and rookie Stanford Jennings 79. Fullback could hold the key this year. Nick Williams is healthy after being hampered with an ankle sprain most of his rookie season and would add some explosion and flexibility with the athletic Bennett and Basnight.
The 270-pound Williams fancies himself a runner because, "not many fullbacks are as big and as athletic as I am," but he's not focusing on any one aspect of his game in an effort to find the total package. They need him to block because Clif Groce quietly showed last year that running backs don't get 1,200 yards on their own.
Asked if Williams could be more of a running back in a one-back set, Anderson said, "I hope he's a fullback, too. It's a mindset. He's got to be of a mind to have toughness because he's got to have the ability to block."
Williams can run, but he knows he has to block and the Bengals want him to get down from 270. He says anything less than 260 is too light.
"How valuable is a back who can do a lot of things?" Williams asked. "You can help yourself and the team with the more you do. If you put me against other fullbacks and I can block as well or better, I think that helps me because I can do more with the ball than other fullbacks. I was never myself last year, but the ankle feels great."