7-5-04, 10:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Adrian Ross, who exchanges e-mails with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, raps with singer E-40, calls himself "The MADDbacker," and gives more than platitudes to the kids of Sacramento, is hip to it all.
Ross, who said Monday he was cleared to play last week seven months after the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee imploded in St. Louis, fully expects to be at his seventh Bengals training camp later in the month.
And, with the same boldness that marked his rise from a college free agent to the guy who used to always to show up at training camp with orange-and-black striped hair, he predicted, "I'll be the best linebacker there no matter where they put me."
But Ross is also keeping his trendy eye on the Jason Gildon situation because he knows full well
he is scheduled to make $1 million this year as a backup and that Gildon, the former Steelers linebacker, and the Bengals keep expressing interest in each other.
"They have to get the money from somewhere, right?" Ross asked. "It's something you have to keep in mind."
The Gildon situation is still where it was before the Fourth of July. Agent Peter Schaffer said the Bengals are still in it with the Bills, Bears, and Packers and asked if there is a timetable said, "Yes. When we get the right deal."
Although Gildon appears not to be jumping on the offer, Schaffer has said he has a nice rapport with his old position coach in Pittsburgh, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. That appears to make Cincinnati a prohibitive favorite. Whatever happens, Schaffer said the plan is for Gildon to be in a training camp on the first day of practice. Which just so happens is Gildon's 32nd birthday when the Bengals convene at Georgetown College July 31.
Ross, 29, has been through it all before. First, he wasn't even supposed to make it back in 1998 out of Colorado State and while right outside linebacker Brian Simmons leads the defense with 76 starts for Cincinnati, only right tackle Willie Anderson (126) and center Rich Braham(119) have played more games as a Bengal than Ross with 90.
A some-time starter but oft-time contributor, Ross came to last year's camp as a backup to strong-side (SAM) linebacker Steve Foley and left as the starter. This year he comes to camp as a backup to middle (MIKE) linebacker Nate Webster and vows to do the same once he gets acclimated back to the middle with a few more snaps.
"I don't know why I'm the backup. I felt like at the end of last year I was dominant," Ross said. "Last year was really the first time I was able to stay in one position for the whole camp and I think it showed."
At 6-2, 243 pounds, he doesn't have the speed or dimensions of a Lewisbacker. He also isn't a Lewis acquisition, which isn't exactly a safety net given that only 21 pre-2003 players are left.
But he has strengths, too. He has that mid-career hunger Lewis covets. And since he played mainly on first and second downs, it must be noted in the game he missed the season finale the Bengals allowed a season-high 264 rushing yards against Cleveland. His replacement, Riall Johnson, bravely took responsibilty for Lee Suggs' 78-yard cut-back touchdown run.
Plus, Ross' versatility is what gives him a very big chip in what is shaping into an intense race for the final spot if the Bengals decide to keep seven linebackers. Simmons, Webster, and Kevin Hardy, the man moved out of the middle into Ross' SAM spot, are the starters. Third-rounders Caleb Miller, a MIKE, and Landon Johnson, a weak-side or WILL baker, were just drafted. Khalid Abdullah, another WILL backer, is a special teams ace drafted last year in the fifth round.
"They're built differently. I like their speed and Miller plays with good knowledge," said Ross of the newcomers.
Ross and Dwayne Levels (with 13 career games) look to be the only guys who have played all three spots. Among those in the mix are veteran Frank Chamberlin and Larry Stevens, a free agent out of Michigan looking to make the transition from defensive end.
"If they put me at SAM, I'll be the best SAM," Ross said. "If they put me at MIKE, I'll be the best MIKE. Just another season beginning in a different spot. But that's what makes it fun."
At 243 pounds, Ross doesn't feel out of step with Lewis' shift to lighter, speedier backers. Last year, he played at about 240 pounds, which is what Webster weighed at the spring camps. In fact, Ross thinks Lewis has helped him.
"I think where Marvin wants you to get to is anticipation, knowing what is coming at you," Ross said. "I can't tell you how good I felt last year. It was weird. I picked up so much knowledge from Marvin in studying the offense and knowing what was coming at you. Marvin stops a play n practice, and he'll step in and tell you, 'Look Adrian, when the back empties out like that, they're going to isolate you on the receiver.'
"And against St. Louis, I just felt like I knew everything was coming at me," Ross said. "It was like that most of the year, I think, because I was playing with so much of that confidence."
But he didn't know the knee was going to blow up on the second-to-last play in the second-to-last game of the season.
"We thought (the Rams) were going to kneel on it and run out the clock," Ross said. "But they ran a play to the other side and I chased it down. When I shifted my weight, that's when it tore it."
Ross says the toughest part of rehab was pacing himself. He said he felt so good early last month when he was given the green light to run full speed that he pulled a quadricep and had to rest a few more days.
But he was healthy enough last month to stage the first annual celebrity basketball game at Arco Arena in Sacramento, Calif., for The MADDBacker Family Resource Center. Ross' foundation serves the youth of the area with educational and recreational programs, and he figures the game raised about $30,000.
Thanks to the owner of the NBA's Sacramento Kings, Gavin and Joe Maloof. One played and one coached, but Ross said the biggest thing they did was donate the facility the morning of the game.
But then, that's Ross. He's got connections. Even his e-mail pal, Cuban, showed up and played, as well as Hardy and other Bengals, Kelley Washington and Terrell Roberts. Ross also got E-40, as well as several Raiders such as Jerry Porter and Phillip Buchanon to make the trip.
"We got about 3,500 people there and it was fun. A great game. It went into overtime and we raised a good amount of money," he said.
Now there is another game for which to prepare, and Ross is flashing the confidence of a celebrity. No matter where it will be. He hopes it is Cincinnati.
"The only thing I'm thinking about," Ross said, "is getting back to the talent I was playing with last year."