Shaping up

Rey Maualuga

Chip Morton, king of the Bengals weight room, has been turned into a weight watcher with the NFL lockout. But he'll be in the middle of the beehive when the mechanics of the collective bargaining agreement are unleashed and zap the league into where it's never been.

And he can't wait. Even if he doesn't know if it's next week or beyond. Even if about five different schedules have already been wiped out by the dwindling timeline. Even if he doesn't know what kind of shape his players are going to be in once he sees them.

Yet he's reading the same stories and is hopeful this long national nap is just about over.

Morton, the Bengals head strength coach, is also buoyed by what he sees as a new core of young veterans emerging to embrace what has accelerated into a year of whiplash transition laced with a rookie quarterback, a new offense, and parts of a roster that must be pieced together at warp speed.

"For the most part we've got good guys that stay in shape, want to be good, and have a certain amount of pride in themselves," Morton said Tuesday. "This year, obviously, the onus has been on them to get in shape. The reviews I've seen are that they had productive workouts that were well planned out."

Morton is talking about guys he already knew were leaders, such as left tackle Andrew Whitworth, defensive end Robert Geathers, and cornerback Leon Hall. But after reading media accounts and watching YouTube of last month's voluntary voluntary workouts, Morton has also been impressed with guys like third-year linebacker Rey Maualuga, fourth-year wide receiver Jerome Simpson, and the heroic organizing skills of sixth-year defensive tackle Domata Peko.

"Every story you read in the paper, they're there," Morton said. "That's tremendous. It shows young guys are committed and care. It's what we're going to need."

Even though a guy like fourth-year wide receiver Andre Caldwell has spent most of his time at home in Tampa, Fla., Morton already knows he's going to get a guy that shows up in tip-top shape. The kind of guy who likes his time in the gym and is willing to try a variety of programs, like he did last year with boxing.

Caldwell is having a productive offseason off the field for sure. He tweeted Tuesday "The Andre Caldwell Foundation Inc. is official! The website & events will be posted shortly! Ages 12-18, lives in Tampa & has a GPA of 2.5."

So solid guys are going to be solid. But while Morton has an idea of who is going to be in shape, he doesn't know at what levels, and that's going to be one of his many challenges once the lockout ends and the players report.

"Guys will be at different levels of fitness," he said. "And we'll evaluate them through body weight and body fat and how they move. We've talked about testing them and we have standards to hit. But is that really going to change dramatically what you're doing with the group? And what kind of time will there be for guys if they need extra work? It's very fluid. Strength and conditioning is a part of it, but so are meeting times and football times."

Morton says his main concern is keeping guys healthy: "You win in this league with players and you have to keep them on the field." He fears for players that come in out of shape because they won't have time to fight off dehydration or muscle pulls, the twin killings of training camp even when players go through spring workouts with the coaches.

The club has/had a variety of scenarios to get in shape: An offseason that began with OTAs. An offseason that had just a minicamp. An offseason that had a week or less for conditioning before training camp. Or, beginning everything at training camp without any conditioning.

"It's starting to look like that's what it's going to be because of where we are," Morton said. "We'll get them right away and have to integrate conditioning into everything else. It's going to be the art of coaching. We've talked about it exhaustively as a staff. We're all going to have to be monitoring our guys in our areas and dole out the work to make sure they're not overdoing it too early."

Morton says there are no secrets. This is no time to be fancy. It is a fundamental and simple approach, much like how he sees new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden installing his scheme sequentially. In Morton's case, the idea is to see where everyone is physically. If a player isn't in aerobic shape when they meet, Morton says he won't have time to get there.

"If you're taking a look at change of direction in a short shuttle, you're just looking to see how they drop their hips and how they move," Morton said. "Basic starts. Keep it simple and fundamental, which works. See where everyone is and go from there."

Morton knows a change is coming. Media reports have indicated the new CBA is going to have a reduced number of OTAs and offseason work. He knows there has been a debate ever since the advent of OTAs in the mid '90s that questions if players go through too much in the spring, making them more vulnerable to injury.

Morton has seen both sides because he came into the NFL 20 seasons ago with San Diego and he thinks this season is going to go a long way in settling the debate.

"In the early '90s, we still had workouts but we only really had one football minicamp," he said. "The football stuff was all pretty informal. Maybe a coach taking individual players on the field, but that was it. We'll see. Some have said less is more.

"But I do think you have to continue to train in those months and the best way is to do it here, in a group setting. I think the group dynamic is very important. It pushes you, it inspires you. And it seems that we've got guys who have responded to that."

In a fluid situation, Morton only really knows one thing. He doesn't know if he'll see his guys July 22, 25, 28, or maybe even early August.

"But I'll be real happy to see them and be around them," he said. "It's going to be like a family reunion."

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