4-10-03, 6:30 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Even before Marvin Lewis talks to his team for the first time Thursday night as Bengals head coach, he has already given his players a taste of the new era.
Through his public pronouncements ("Thinking about the past takes your mind off the future"), free-agent deeds (replacing Takeo Spikes with three starters), and an overhauled offseason program (with the best spring attendance in memory), the message is already sent.
"It's already proven to be a tougher deal. More serious, more focused with things done the right way," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins as he heads into his sixth season. "We're like the start of the new generation. We're the start of when we're going to be good and respectable around here.
"It's going to be a little harder than just showing up and having a tradition like the Steelers," Hawkins said. "They've had it since the '70s. They haven't won a Super Bowl since, but they're still good every year. Our (tradition) is starting now. It's always harder to start something, but I'd rather be a part of the start than part of what's been going on the last five years."
They quickly get a taste of the famed Lewis organization. There will be no football until Friday.
After arriving for physicals late Thursday afternoon, their first meeting at 6 p.m. consists strictly of "administrative," details. Then the football meetings start out of the box Friday morning, with two practices Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
"He's already sent the message," said linebacker Brian Simmons, also going into his sixth season. "It's only about winning and nothing else. You help us win. If you help us lose, you've got to go. That's the way it should be."
Many players appear cautiously optimistic, but like right tackle Willie Anderson says, "We've seen everything to be seen in the NFL," so they are also waiting to see the results. But Anderson admits the atmosphere is so much better since the locker room cleared out in Buffalo after last season's finale.
In fact, Anderson has been talking to an old friend now in Buffalo (Spikes) about what Lewis has implemented in his nearly three months on the job.
"Takeo tells me they're doing this and they're doing that up there," Anderson said. "And I tell him, 'We're doing the exact same thing.' I think he's a little surprised at how much they've let Marvin do.
"It's going to be good to get around the guys again and see what we can put together," Anderson said. "Marvin has done a great job with a lot of the changes and now we'll see if it can translate into winning. I'm excited about getting it going."
It's an excitement that has come a long way from the dread of a Dec. 30 locker room that noted Dick LeBeau's firing. But Simmons isn't so much excited as relieved.
"When you do stuff that's supposed to be done, that's (treated) like a big thing," Simmons said. "But that's what should be going on. I guess we've been deprived a little bit around here for a while. I just think things are being run the way they're supposed to be."
SCREENS AND SLANTS:** Cincinnati City Council adopted a resolution Wednesday honoring the goodwill of the Ben-Gals cheerleaders during their trip last month to Bosnia to entertain American troops. Against the backdrop of the war in Iraq, the trip has come to mean so much more. Ben-Gals director Charlotte Jacobs called it, "a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It's the kind of thing you remember 10, 20, 40 years from now." . . .
The Seahawks aren't expected to sign Bengals kicker Neil Rackers, a restricted free agent, after working him out Tuesday.
They also worked out Mike Husted and John Markham, a former Giants draft choice, and are expected to work out several more kickers before the April 26-27 NFL Draft. Since Rackers is a restricted free agent, the word is Seattle doesn't want to give up a sixth-round draft pick, which is the price if the Bengals choose not to match a Seattle offer sheet. Speculation is the Seahawks are impressed enough with Rackers and last season's 15-for-18 performance to check him out in case he becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season. Rob Roche, his agent, said the Bengals have given no indications yet they are ready to talk about a long-term contract. Seattle has a week until April 17 to sign Rackers to an offer sheet. Roche said he expects to hear by Friday what Seattle has planned. . .