BY GEOFF HOBSON
As the Bengals mull life without Brian (Simmons) today, rookie middle linebacker Armegis Spearman realizes how strange life is. With Simmons expected to miss at least eight weeks
after today's surgery for torn knee cartilage, Spearman is one of three players looking to replace him at the center of their defense.
But after team doctor Rob Heidt, Jr. successfully re-attached his lateral meniscus cartilage to his bone today at HealthSouth Surgery Center in Montgomery, Ohio, there was some optimisim Simmons could return for the last half of the season. Eight weeks is the minimun he'll be out, but the Bengals are making no plans to give up his roster spot to injured reserve or look elsewhere to replace him.
The 6-1, 254-pound Spearman took the lead after playing 12 snaps Sunday when Simmons went down on the final play of the third quarter during the 24-7 loss to Cleveland. He had two tackles, two assists and maybe most importantly for linebackers coach Mark Duffner, "no mental errors."
But the Bengals know they have lost one of their elite players in their defensive signal caller who led them in tackles last season with 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash. It's an injury just as devastating to the defense as the Aug. 1 broken leg that wiped out receiver Darnay Scott's season.
"It takes an important cog out of our machine," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "We have to go with Spearman, who's a very young guy. We like Spearman, but to expect him to come on and play at the level Brian is playing at now is just too much."
Some veteran middle backers still banging around free agency are former Jaguars Bryan Schwartz and Tom McManus, former Bear Keith Burns and former Titan Doug Colman. The Bengals are compiling of list of free veterans, but they appear content with their own trio.
Four-year veteran Billy Granville, primarily a special teams player, and third-year man Adrian Ross, mainly an outside linebacker, are also pushing for the job this week against a Jacksonville team expected to be without running back Fred Taylor. Spearman, an outside linebacker in Mississippi's fourth-best rush defense in the nation last season, was also heavily pursued by the Cowboys after he went undrafted. But he took the Bengals' $10,000 signing bonus.
"Dallas offered the same and probably would have offered more," Spearman said. "But I wanted to get it over with and plus, I wanted to come here because of Duffner and because of the two guys (Simmons and Takeo Spikes) who were here. They're future Pro Bowl players, so I thought it was a good opportunity. Now I have a chance to play in place of one of them and that's unfortunate, but it gives me a chance to show what I can do."
But Brown saw Simmons emerging as one of the NFL's leading hitters.
"He has just gotten to the point where he is at the top of his game," Brown said. "He's going to be a splendid NFL player from this point on. He played well in the preseason and was playing a good game. All teams have injuries, but sometimes it just isn't how many injuries you have and we haven't had that many this year. It's who gets injured and there we've been hit in the heart."
If Simmons is the heart of the defense, Spikes is the soul. Spikes admitted today he lost "my right hand," with the injury and vowed to do more pick up the slack. Both were picked in the first round in 1998 and have played next to each other for the past two seasons. Spikes wondered if he might be moved from the right outside (known as the Mac linebacker lined away from the tight end) to replace Spikes in the middle (the Buck linebacker), but Duffner and Simmons himself shot that down. . .
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"I don't think they want to do that," Simmons said. "If you did that, you'd have two new starters out there. Even though (Spikes) is very experienced, if you put him in the buck he's learning a whole new position that would make him young also."
Spikes sees the Bengals missing more than Simmons' speed. How many times have they lined up and Simmons shot a reminder to him like, "Hey, we got the lead (block), it's second-and-eight,"?
"(Simmons brings) knowledge of the game, being a quarterback out there," Spikes said. "He has a real good sense. . .a gut feeling when something is coming. . .He's been drilling me with so much, now it's time for me to drill somebody else."
Spikes says he'll be careful not to try and do too much in compensating for Simmons' absence, "but I have to be more active, be even more active than I was this past week. I have to be around the ball every tackle."
The Bengals see a lot of Spikes and Simmons in Spearman when it comes to athleticism, but like Simmons said, "The young guys have to get in their playbook if they're going to put them out there." Indeed, Spearman said his major adjustment to the pro game has been learning the checkoffs at the line of scrimmage.
"There's a lot more checkoffs," Spearman said. "In college, we didn't change defenses, but we do it here a lot. The good thing about the game was I didn't have any mental busts."
Simmons got hurt when an offensive lineman fell and hit his helmet on the knee after Simmons made the tackle. Duffner called it freakish, but Simmons is hoping it will be no fluke if his keee gets close to 100 percent. He wants to keep that 4.5 speed.
"You never know when they do a surgery," Simmons said. "But the ligaments are OK so I think it's good chance it will get back to 100 percent."
Bengals trainer Paul Sparling confirmed the optimism,
"Based on the MRI," Sparling said. "There's a reasonably good opportunity to surgically repair the tear."