Something new is something old

5-4-01, 3:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Tony McGee arrived for the first team meeting of the year Friday as the new face of the Bengals.

Just two weeks removed from his 30th birthday, McGee is the team's elder statesman as he heads into his ninth consecutive season with the club as its No. 1 tight end.

But he's got plenty of friends in the over-30 age group and that, along with new coach Dick LeBeau's Produce-Or-Else tone, is giving what was once the NFL's youngest locker room a different, veteran and optimistic feel.

There will be nine players 30 or older when LeBeau meets with the team at 6 p.m. Friday. That was unheard of in the past several seasons, when even then head coach Bruce Coslet complained publicly about how his roster was always among the youngest in the NFL.

The Bengals have been the NFL's resident head case. A team with good talent that on Sundays finds more ways to lose than a dot com company. Some fingers point to the team's annual youth movements, which critics suggest have eroded consistency on the field and fostered a lack of leadership off of it.

Players like middle linebacker Brian Simmons admit leadership has been a problem, but they also say there is more hope in the locker room now.

"Don't pack light," said Steve Foley, one of the club's three linebackers who have been starting since they came into the league three seasons ago.

"With the older guys we've added and the experience that the young guys now have, I think we can go to the playoffs. We've got a chance. I want to stay in my apartment after that last game. I don't want to go home. I want to keep playing. That's what we've got to tell our teammates. Don't pack light."

McGee has never played on a winning team, never mind going to the playoffs. But he's decided not to let it bog him down.

"I've been guilty of looking at the glass half empty," McGee admitted. "I'd get discouraged about some of the things I see. But my whole thing is looking at everything positively and I think there have been some good off-season moves here.

"When you've got guys like (Scott) Mitchell and (John) Jackson and (Richmond) Webb, good vets like that,

it's easier coming in with a positive attitude. As opposed to a bunch of young guys running around that really don't know what goes on and what it's all about. I think having those guys around is going to rub off on the younger guys."

LeBeau, a former vet himself with 14 years as a player, championed the veterans' cause with the addition of free-agents such as Webb at left tackle and Mitchell and Jon Kitna at quarterback. With the return of injured receiver Darnay Scott, the Bengals' potential starting lineup on offense is nearly two years older on average than last year's Opening Day lineup.

Counting Kitna instead of Akili Smith, the spread is 27.4 years to 25.7. The average got boosted with the re-signings of 30-year-old Rich Braham and 28-year-old left guard Matt O'Dwyer.

Simmons now finds himself a four-year veteran instead of a youngster struggling to establish himself on a young team.

"If somebody sees somebody not doing something right, the vet has to step up and tell them that's not the way it's going to be done on this team," Simmons said. "The players have to run the team. The coaches can't run the team. That's up to the players.

" That's been a lot of the problem around here," Simmons said. "Guys see guys doing stuff and nobody says anything. They just sit back and let it go If you see something and don't say anything, you're just as much at fault as the guy doing it."

The Bengals will start a rookie on defense, probably at right end, in Justin Smith. But free-agent linemen Kevin Henry and Tony Williams, along with a healthy Vaughn Booker, bring a combined 20 NFL years into camp.

Look at it this way. Booker and Henry, who will most likely rotate at left end, were born in 1968 when Johnson (Lyndon) was president. Smith was born in 1979, when Johnson (Pete) led the Bengals in rushing.

"You need that mix of youth and age," said Mitchell, 33, who along with the 36-year-old Jackson gave the Bengals some ballast amid last year's turbulence.

"You need those guys who have been through it," Mitchell said. "They keep you with a level head, give you some stability when things get rocky. But you can't have a team of old guys. You have to have those young, fiery, in-your-face guys."

Jackson, who didn't sign with the Bengals last year until the start of training camp, thinks the roster reflects LeBeau.

"Dick's a no-nonsense guy,' Jackson said. "He wants guys who act like pros and guys who have been through it. I think he sent that message last year."

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