Start 101 for Braham?

2-18-03, 3:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Center Rich Braham has started 100 games for the Bengals, but he knows 101 is up in the air.

"I don't really know what they're thinking," Braham said Tuesday. "If I'm going to be there, I'll be there. If not, I'll be some place else."

With 10 days until free agency opens, the Bengals are pretty much acting like any other NFL team with a new head coach and a roster coming off a 2-14 season. Except for putting the transition tag on linebacker Takeo Spikes and phone calls to fullback Lorenzo Neal's agent, the Bengals are playing it cool with starters and backups alike. They would like to re-sign some of their free agents before Feb. 28, but indications are they are going into free agency, too, to see if the grass is greener.

They expect fullback Nicolas Luchey and defensive lineman Bernard Whittington to go on the market. Braham and Cory Hall, who has started 29 games at both safety spots the past two seasons, have yet to receive offers.

"Cory has no philosophical, religious, or any other reasons for not playing in Cincinnati again," said agent Peter Schaffer. "If they want him back, he would certainly be interested and consider it (before Feb. 28). I've got players in Cincinnati (Jeff Burris) and I love Marvin Lewis. And Cory is grateful for the shot they've given him."

If anything does happen before then, it probably wouldn't happen until next week and a few days before free agency opens. Bengals' officials,

along with their NFL counterparts, are going to be involved in the league's scouting combine this week in Indianapolis.

Right tackle Willie Anderson has played in the most games (110), but no one has been a Bengal longer than Braham. When he arrived on Buddy Ryan's waivers from the Cardinals on Nov. 18, 1994, Dave Shula was the head coach, Jeff Blake had been the quarterback for three weeks, Tim Krumrie was playing his last season, and current team chaplain Ken Moyer was ahead of Braham at right guard.

Braham, 32, knows there are question marks about his age and health. But he is healing up a sore elbow and ankle in typical tough, Brahamian fashion and he has no qualms about playing for his fourth head coach in Lewis.

The Bengals have talked about getting younger in the interior of their line, but Braham thinks he can play several more seasons.

"You look around the league and there are guys playing at 35, 36," Braham said. "I think I can do that. Hey, it's what I do. I'm a football player. I'd like to see us win. I think we can. Marvin has a history of winning teams and I would think that's what he's going to bring in here."

Braham has yet to talk to Lewis, but he also knows the Bengals have the right to match any offer, so, "that gives them the upper hand right now."

But one thing is certain. The Bengals admire his toughness. Despite his problems this season, he played all but one game. In 2001, he received the team's Ed Block Courage award for playing 98.8 percent of the snaps despite being diagnosed with a herniated neck disc early in the season.

"I think we've got talent," Braham said. "Why we haven't won, I don't know. Something is missing. Hopefully we can find it with Marvin. If I don't come back, I'll move on."

It's still early. Hall's agent, the Denver-based Schaffer, has a relationship with Bengals vice president for player personnel Paul Brown that goes back to Brown's days at Regis College. They always meet for lunch or dinner at the combine.

"No offer," Schaffer said. "But I haven't had sushi yet with P.B."

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BILLS STILL WAITING:** Bills President Tom Donahoe said his club is in no hurry to get an answer from former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau about moving north as a defensive coach on coordinator Jerry Gray's staff. Donahoe and the Bills were already at the NFL scouting combine Tuesday night, indicating they are comfortable with an open-ended timetable.

"It's a job that's been offered with him in mind, so it's not like we're going to add somebody if he doesn't take it," Donahoe said. "The job is just for him and there's no rush. (Head coach) Gregg Williams and Jerry sat down with him and were comfortable with it."

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COMBINING TALENT: ** The NFL has made plans for the combine to run smoother (but not quicker) by extending it two days. As long as the roof stays on the RCA Dome, anything will be smoother for Marvin Lewis than his first trip to Indy as a head coach. He had planned to return to Cincinnati from his Maryland home Sunday night, but got stranded in the record snow until Tuesday. Lewis, scheduled to meet the national media Wednesday morning, hoped to fly directly to Indy Tuesday evening.

In order to keep it sane, teams

can now only interview a set schedule of 60 prospects for 15 minutes each. Before, it was first-come, first-serve as coaches and team officials literally, at times, fought over players in the players' hotel lobby to get as any of the 330 prospects. Plus, players complained of the interviews that dragged past midnight even though they had 6 a.m. wake-up calls.

"We really won't know until we get there, but that should help," Lewis said. "There was some pressure and you had to use runners to get guys for you. It all worked out in the end. The one thing is it keeps guys pretty much equal. The better players used to bug out early."

Teams had to submit their list of 60 players by Jan. 31. The list isn't public, but Lewis said it generally applies to players the club could take in the first three or four rounds. But he said the field isn't weighted to any particular position.

"It's pretty much spread out," Lewis said. "Plus, we know we're going to probably be talking to these guys again."

Lewis still thinks the workouts are the most valuable part of the combine, as well as the medical exams. He said he wishes more high-profile guys would work out, but in the end, it won't make or break a prospect in his mind.

"You can't hold a grudge," he said.

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