Standout linebacker Brian Simmons bought into the Bengals when being a Bengal wasn't quite so cool.
The era of head coach Marvin Lewis, a time which has energized Bengals followers to a remarkable degree, was not on anyone's radar screen on Aug. 13, 2002, the day Simmons signed a contract extension through 2007.
Preview publications for the 2002 season had dismissed the Bengals as a third-place finisher at best in the four-team AFC North, and the reality was worse. Cincinnati would finish last with a 2-14 record, worst in franchise history.
It wasn't a resounding initial affirmation of Simmons' decision to forego free agency in 2003, particularly since his "other half," LB Takeo Spikes, was unsigned beyond 2002, headed to free agency and an eventual signing with Buffalo. Simmons and Spikes had been an inseparable duo in the football public's eye since 1998, when they both were signed to five-year deals as dual first-round Cincinnati draft picks.
But Simmons carried on with his customary class during the long '02 ordeal. He was often an upfront team spokesman, but he never let frustration lead him to comments that could hurt the team.
"Last season wasn't the time for me to do a lot of thinking and second-guessing," Simmons said during a recent offseason workout. "The time for all that stuff is before you decide to sign a contract, and I had sure done all of that before I signed.
"So you never were going to see me looking back and wondering if I did the right thing. My only focus was doing everything I could to make the situation go better."
Simmons and the Bengals can't erase that 2-14 from the history books, and it will be two months yet before the team can do anything on a Sunday afternoon toward building a better record in '03.
Still, there's no denying that since the '02 season mercifully ended, Simmons has been blessed with plenty of new reason to think his decision to sign was a good one. Since Jan. 14, when Marvin Lewis was signed, the new Bengals head coach has made numerous changes and done a dazzling job of boosting optimism about the team.
"From a players' standpoint, everything is just run a little tighter around here now," Simmons said. "Everyone knows exactly what's expected of him, and everybody knows that if you don't do what you're supposed to, there are going to be consequences.
"We made some great personnel acquisitions, and there has been a big change in the weight room that's going to help us prepare for the season and then help us again during the season."
Team issues aren't the only reason for Simmons to be particularly inspired for Year Two of his deal. He's looking forward to a big change in his personal football universe, as he'll move to an outside LB position after playing inside for his first five Bengals seasons.
Simmons played outside LB in college, leading some of the nation's top defenses at North Carolina. But the versatile athlete was able to make the move inside as a pro, fitting what was then the personnel need in the Bengals scheme. That situation has changed in 2003, however, with outside LB Spikes going to Buffalo and LB Kevin Hardy obtained as a free agent from Dallas.
Hardy was tabbed by the coaching staff as the new middle linebacker, with Simmons moving to fill the outside spot left vacant by Spikes.
"I never played inside linebacker until I came here, but you do what the coach asks you to do," Simmons said of his seasons inside.
He carried out the inside assignment to the tune of 60 starts over five years, with 467 tackles and 16.5 sacks. His 6.5 sacks in 2001 are a team-record for a Bengals inside linebacker.
"But I've always felt my natural position was outside," Simmons said, "and I'm excited about going back there. Really, I don't care where I am as long as we win some football games. I've had my share of good times as an individual player, but as you get older you realize it's all about winning, about playing games that have some real significance."
But what about the sack opportunities for an outside linebacker? How can Simmons not be thinking about the double-digit mark in quarterback takedowns? There's no faster way to the Pro Bowl berth some feel he has long deserved.
"I'm just thinking about double-figure wins," Simmons insisted with a smile. "The only thing that really matters is what the team has done at the end of the season."