Retiring approach?

1-30-04, 9:20 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

HOUSTON _ Panthers special teams coach Scott O'Brien has apparently told his players if they win Sunday, he'll retire. But guys like Pro Bowl punter Todd Sauerbrun aren't buying it.

"Could (retirement) be a possibility? Sure," O'Brien told The Charlotte Observer Thursday. "I coach for one reason: to win this game. If I win it, then I'll make a decision. I don't know if I've had enough. But there's other life besides football that our profession gets very little of."

O'Brien, in his fifth season with the Panthers, had been assisted by Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons before Simmons came to Cincinnati last year. It's extremely doubtful the Bengals would let the Panthers come after Simmons if O'Brien does leave.

And O'Brien did back off ever so slightly, saying if the Panthers win, he will take a few days before evaluating his future.

"I do it every year," O'Brien told the paper. "Every coach does that. You evaluate the season with no pressure on you and go from there." **

SWEEPS AND STUNTS:** The NFL Players Association released new salary numbers for the 2004 season, including one-year offers to franchise and transition free agents. The Bengals don't figure to have any of those, but the stats show that running back Corey

Dillon was the only Bengal paid in the top 10 at his position last season with $5 million in a combined salary and bonus. That was third for backs behind the Titans' Eddie George ($6.6 million) and the Lions' James Stewart at $5.1 million. . .Minimum salaries for players in years four to six are now $535,000, up from $530,000. . .

Panthers defensive lineman Brentson Buckner has been a hit with the media this week, and the Bengals haven't escaped his barbs. The journeyman spent 1997 in Cincinnati and while he praised quarterback Boomer Esiason for his leadership, he ripped old Spinney Field and, among other things, the small towels they were given. He said the players had to go in the sauna and dry off.

Of course, you'd have to think he's not Marvin Lewis' kind of player. He played three seasons in San Francisco where, "You had to drive like an hour away to get some Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I used to make that drive about two or three times a week. If you come in our locker room every day, there's seven or eight dozen lying around. You've got to have them." . . .

Maybe there is something to smart teams winning. The Super Bowl teams have the first and third most college graduates in the league, and the second-place team, Indianapolis, reached the AFC title game. Carolina has 42, Indy 37, and New England 35. . .

**

SPIKES ARRIVES:** Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes tried on his new role as Pro Bowl linebacker, not to mention a Hawaiian shirt, and met the Super Bowl media Thursday at a news conference pumping the Feb. 8 game between the AFC and NFC. No, he didn't know he'll be back in Cincinnati next season for the Bills' first trip to Paul Brown Stadium.

"Homecoming for me," Spikes said. "I've still got so many friends there. It's going to be a big day."

Spikes felt he couldn't reach the big island without leaving Cincinnati last March, and went through a bit of a tumultuous offseason before Buffalo signed him and the Bengals decided not to match the offer.

Now, even though he reached the Pro Bowl (and what has been described as a "significant," Pro Bowl incentive in excess of $100,000), there is still come uncertainty in the wake of the Bills' 6-10 season. He has a new head coach in Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and Dick LeBeau, the Bills' assistant head coach and defensive consultant, has gone back to Pittsburgh as defensive coordinator after coaching Spikes in each of his six NFL seasons.

"I don't know," said Spikes, when asked about the move. "I hate LeBeau leaving. That

hurt because I never would have thought he would go back to Pittsburgh."

Spikes knew when he signed it was possible that head coach Gregg Williams would be gone after a year, and he's relieved that the club retained several of its defensive coaches despite an aggressive raid by the Redskins. But he was surprised at the offensive housecleaning. Even though Buffalo finished second in defense in the NFL, Spikes thinks they can be so much better if they improve on a NFL-low 18 takeaways. The only real question mark seems to be if free-agent cornerback Antoine Winfield returns.

"I felt like in the second half of the season, from Week 8 to 16, that's when our defense really picked up and played consistent throughout the year," Spikes said. "It was important to keep everyone intact and keep that great understanding. Now we're catching on.

"We finished No. 2, but it doesn't feel like we finished No. 2. We could have done better," Spikes said. "Especially in turnover margin. If we can get that up, what kind of statement can we make?"

The Bills finished tied with the Giants for last in the NFL with a minus-16 turnover differential and are looking to Mularkey to revive quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Spikes has spoken to Mularkey once since he got the job. By this time last year, Spikes had spoken several times to new Bengals coach Marvin Lewis in an attempt to leave.

"It was nothing personal. (The coach) could have been anybody," Spikes said. "My time was up."

Spikes is happy for Lewis and his ex-teammates and their 8-8 record, and he admitted he was surprised at the number of changes Lewis was allowed to implement.

"I knew he could do the job because of what he had done as a coach before he came," Spikes said.

Spikes plans a Bengal reunion with right tackle Willie Anderson Friday here at the Super Bowl before they leave for Hawaii for their first Pro Bowl. He's bringing his mother, brother, sister, a best friend, and agent Todd France, but his mind seems to be on the upcoming season.

"I'm mad I'm not playing now. I'm healthy. I'm ready to go," said Spikes, who admitted Friday he had trouble finding motivation to play at times during the losing in Cincinnati. "I haven't felt like this going into a season since my second year."

The Bills were the last team to manhandle the Patriots when they pounded them, 31-0, in Buffalo in the opener. New England has lost just once since (20-17 in Washington), but Spikes is picking Carolina to win Sunday. In large part, he just can't see himself going for a bitter division rival in a rivalry that has been cranked to a new level with the swap of Bledsoe and Lawyer Milloy.

"Carolina is stronger. They have more big-play ability (than New England)," Spikes said. "But at the same time, I know what New England is capable of. They've been doing it all year.

"You can't allow New England to get up on you and get up early," said Spikes, wary of Pats defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. "Once you do, you allow Romeo to sit back and call a lot of things. The corners are so good on that team where you can allow the front eight to blitz all the time, or you can put in different packages where you have your third corner blitzing from the side or double teaming a guy. That's the strongest part of their defense. The corners."

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