Perception camps out

7-21-01, 12:15 a.m.

Updated: 7-21-01, 10:40 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ The Bengals think they are better.

They say they are deeper, older, wiser. Optimism flowed unchecked on check-in day here Friday at Georgetown College like the orange in the braids in the hair of linebacker Adrian Ross.

"We're going to win more games," said wide receiver Peter Warrick. "I guarantee it."

Akili Smith said he's looking forward to the year he has christened "my make-or-break year."

One veteran mused, "If we win the opener, this team can win nine games."

So it follows all jobs are open and everyone gets a second chance. Like much-maligned fourth-year cornerback Artrell Hawkins, who lost his job early last year but re-surfaced Saturday morning on the season's first depth chart at right corner.

But the Bengals know they are in a one-on-one fly pattern against perception and are getting blanketed badly. No one else believes they are any better than the 4-12 of the past two seasons.

Just ask Willie Anderson, still steaming over the take in "Pro Football Weekly," that said he could be one of the league's best right tackles if he was lighter and more focused.

"Put the film on right now of the four best right tackles and there won't be anybody better," Anderson said upon reporting. "I am the top.

"But when you lose, the perception is no one is any good. There has to be a negative. That happens in the NFL," Anderson said. "They say about (Bengals linebacker) Takeo Spikes, 'he should do this and he should do that.' But look what he's doing.' That kind of talk should make everyone want to win."

Actually, this has gone from a team of untried kids battered by youth to veterans getting battered by perception.

No one wanted Dolphins left tackle Richmond Webb even though the Bengals thought he looked terrific on film at age 34. Fullback Lorenzo Neal

was deemed too expensive even though he blocked for Eddie George's two best seasons in Tennessee. The Vikings didn't keep defensive tackle Tony Williams even though he's got a great motor, is quick, and was ranked the best young tackle in free agency by a panel of league personnel people.

And then there's 12-year veteran quarterback Scott Mitchell, who thinks he's perceived all wrong behind Jon Kitna and Akili Smith.

"I came in here physically and mentally ready to be the starter," Mitchell said. "I think they kind of view me as a good old veteran guy that if we need him kind of thing. But if given the opportunity, I know I can do a very good job here."

The key word in the perception battle is "veterans." Last year, Mitchell was one of two players 30 years or older who reported here the first day. On Friday, a dozen players who are at least 30 or will turn 30 during camp checked in.

"There are more professional guys," Anderson said. "More guys know how to practice, how to study. We'll be different like that."

Fullback Clif Groce hopes the age factor means some things.

"Maybe it will keep away the cliques and guys won't be worried about money and status," Groce said. "The older guys have been there, done that, and know the important thing about football is winning. That's been the problem here. Camaraderie."

At the moment, Anderson is going to be hard to live with anyone who questions his 340 pounds.

"You have to look at performance," Anderson said. "Gave up one sack the last two years. One of the league's top running games. I had a much better offseason than the last because I was able to run on my knees and feet.

"But people just see the negativity, so there has to be a reason," Anderson said. "There's only one way to change it."

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