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Ship shape

Posted: 3 p.m.

The Bengals walked off the field Saturday for the last time before training camp convinced they are as ready as they ever have been physically under Marvin Lewis for the long run.

"Great offseason, great plan," said quarterback Carson Palmer, after sharpening his elbow with a couple of touchdown lasers in the morning practice at Paul Brown Stadium. "This is as good as shape as we've been in since I've been here."

It has been an offseason of intensity and urgency after the horrific 4-11-1 mark of last season, but it was not symbolized by the sporadic scuffles of Thursday and Friday during the first two days of the mandatory minicamp. Instead, the symbol came Wednesday in the form of strength coach Chip Morton's old and battered copy of the U.S. Amateur Tug of War Association rule book.

Morton used it for the final event of the team Olympics that Lewis organized for fun the day before the mandatory. But in keeping with the theme of the offseason, it was also loaded with heavy doses of competition.

"Phenomenal finish," Morton said. "We followed the rules for a tug-of-war as far as the markings on the rope, staying on your feet and not wrapping. The standard grip, not wrapping. Eight men a side. Three 300-pounders. Two under 240. Three between 240 and 300. Best two out of three.

"If you could have just heard the sound of that rope. It cracked. It was just crackling. Those guys really wanted it. I don't know where you'd hear a sound like that. Maybe on big ships."

The black team, captained by Palmer and safety Chris Crocker, won the third fall and that meant they won the entire competition, 24-18, after trailing, 19-18. As anything with passion, there is always controversy. The gray team, captained by middle linebacker Dhani Jones and left tackle Andrew Whitworth, was still fuming Saturday.

"We're going to appeal it to the Supreme Court," Whitworth said, pointing the finger at his fellow guard. "Bobbie Williams is going to have to testify before Congress. They had a little help. They slid an extra guy in there at the last minute. It was nine on eight."

Palmer stayed above the fray, claiming the victory legit.

"No, I didn't hear (the rope) or anything like that," he said. "I was too busy barking out orders."

All kidding aside, the tug-of-war is a microcosm of what Morton and associate strength coach Ray Oliver were shooting for when the workouts began back on March 30.

Old school. Simple. Competitive.

"We went back in time a bit. We made it simpler," Morton said. "We made it more demanding with heavier loads. Everything was competitive."

For example, only one agility drill in the daily routine was pre-programmed. All the others were races between groups. The lifting portion wasn't as sharply defined in a competition, but Morton said the simpler format with fewer exercises and bigger loads made it easier for the players to know who was doing what.

"This is the best shape we've been in. They did a good job adding a lot of intensity to the program," Whitworth said. "That's they key to any strength program. And with that comes competition with all the guys trying to reach new levels."

Lewis didn't breathe any audible sign of relief after Saturday's final air horn and the 1,000th snap of the spring. But he had to feel it after a season his injured list was among the top in the NFL.

The only casualty since on-field workouts began May 19 turned out to be center Dan Santucci with a bruised foot suffered Thursday at the end of the first practice of the mandatory minicamp. But he'll be ready for training camp.

It is days like this when Morton and Oliver feel like proud parents handing over the keys of the car to Lewis and his guys.

"Our team has worked really hard to get into conditioning shape to play football," Lewis said. "The key right now and when we come back here is to be in the same kind of conditioning and shape. I think we have an opportunity for the first time in a long time with everybody healthy and ready to go. Getting to the gate is important for us as a team healthy. It's something we spent a lot time on and made sure we were able to do that."

Lewis said coaches and players have been talking about regaining the competitive edge since last season ended. It was heightened with the best attendance in Lewis' seven offseasons. Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco was the only player who wasn't here. But far from the sulky loner when he arrived last week, he got right into the act.

When he passed his conditioning test on Wednesday, the same day as the Olympics, Ochocinco ended up running about 20 straight 40-yard dashes. The first 14 were part of his test, then he jumped into the Olympics.

But fellow receiver Andre Caldwell got a whiff of the adrenaline and he jumped in and ran couple of extra 40s for his team, too.

"It kind of speaks where we are as a team," Lewis said. "That young-minded team. Not that team that thinks they've arrived and that says a lot. Our veteran players have accepted those challenges and gone along with the young guys. We've gone back to the future a little bit.

"It's fun to see 85 as we know and love him. His competitive, challenging self. He's back to that. He's back to every day walking out of that tunnel and going to let somebody know where he is. 'Here I am. Come cover me.' "

And some observers noted that once Ochocinco arrived, wide receiver Laveranues Coles picked up his game and finished fast after a month of trying to adjust to a new system and new quarterback.

The Olympics included events like the bench press (won by center Kyle Cook for the gray with 39 reps of 225 pounds) three-point shooting, an obstacle course, tug-of-war, a football accuracy toss, and punt catching. Most of the events had a heavyweight, a middleweight and a lightweight class, and the edge seemed to carry over.

"You could see the competiveness out there in the last day of minicamp," Whitworth said. "You figure guys are just out there trying to get out of here. But I've never seen a last day like this one. There were guys diving all over the place for the ball."

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