Tagliabue embraces changes

5-1-03, 6:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue kick-started the biggest weekend of the new regime Thursday by endorsing the off-season moves of Bengals President Mike Brown and leaping on the Marvin Lewis bandwagon in front of Cincinnati business leaders at a Paul Brown Stadium luncheon.

On Friday, the Bengals hold their second minicamp and the first with a class of rookies headed by quarterback of the future Carson Palmer. Then the Bengals celebrate their past Saturday night when Lewis hosts about 50 ex-Bengals in an alumni dinner he plans to make an annual event.

"It's good a thing for our players to see reality," Lewis said. "We want them to be exposed to guys who played here and played on successful teams and know what it takes to win in the NFL."

The Bengals celebrated both the past and the future Thursday overlooking the skyline of the present when they gathered in the East Club Lounge with members of the Cincinnati Business Committee to honor their Hall-of-Fame tackle Anthony Munoz and two local high school coaches.

Local business leaders and the NFL split a $25,000 award to Munoz's foundation to recognize his civic leadership. Anderson High School's Vince Suriano and Taft High School's Mike Martin each received the inaugural Paul Brown Award for Excellence in Coaching and Leadership.

Suriano, who has led a once dormant Anderson program to 10 league championships in the past dozen years, and Martin a former Bengal who is leading a Taft team back from extinction, each received $5,000 for their schools in donations from the Bengals and the Castellini Family Foundation.

Tagliabue admitted he makes few stops like this one during the spring, but the momentum the Bengals have built since Lewis' Jan. 14 hiring hasn't been lost in New York.

"I think the business community showed some real leadership and saw an opportunity to build upon the excitement growing out of Marvin Lewis' hiring, growing out of the Bengals having the first draft pick," Tagliabue said. "(The luncheon) is what I would call a preseason August luncheon on the first of May. . .It's a sign of how important we feel this is and how significant the change is."

Tagliabue compared Lewis in some ways to Bill Cowher, Chuck Noll, and Marv Levy, but Lewis indicated he knows the honeymoon is ending soon.

"One regular-season game. You don't have anymore promise than that," Lewis said. "That's what everyone is pointing to here. I've said it many times. There are going to be people with one foot in and one foot out, and we're going to push them over and get their two feet in the stadium.

"Pressure is when people know they can't do something, and we can do what we're setting out to do," Lewis said. "That's to be a team that wins more games than they lose and has an opportunity go forward and win a championship. Those are our goals. We can't be afraid to strive to be great."

The Bengals have made loping strides since those days last November and December when they were bashed by politicians for not fielding a competitive team and tainted by media reports that said Tagliabue was pushing Brown to make drastic changes that included hiring a general manager. Tagliabue denied those reports Thursday and congratulated Brown on the hiring of Lewis.

"I know our owners well enough to know they have a competitive fire in them and Mike has got that kind of competitive fire," Tagliabue said. "You can't dictate that from the top what an owner is going to do. You have to let them work it through in their own minds, and that's what Mike did. I think he deserves a lot credit for making that type of commitment he's made to the team, to the community through Coach Lewis and in other ways."

Realizing the searing pressure Brown has been under locally and nationally, both Tagliabue and Lewis emphasized the Bengals president has also been a huge factor in this sweeping offseason of change. Lewis said Brown has given him everything he has needed, and reiterated he doesn't think Brown and his family could have changed so drastically in three months in giving him the green light to implement his philosophy.

When Tagliabue said he hoped to return to visit soon, Lewis jumped on the remark and told his players, "The commissioner has challenged us, guys. The commissioner doesn't go to the teams that aren't playing very well at the end of the year. I know that for a fact."

But Tagliabue is thinking more about the beginning of the season. Always known for his people making sure he's got his pulse on the national media, Tagliabue has a pretty good idea how MarvinMania is going to play in sports departments across the land.

"In our own organization, we've already seen from the media, not just here in Ohio, but on a regional basis and nationally that the Bengals' training camp in Georgetown College is going to be a popular place for National Football League writers because there's a lot of interest in both Marvin Lewis and Corey Dillon and all the talent they have. Carson Palmer competing with Jon Kitna, so this is going to be an important story for football fans."

Tagliabue is an unabashed Lewis fan that sees a little bit of himself in the coach.

"(He) lets his actions speak louder than words. I think many coaches in the NFL who had great success were in that mold," Tagliabue said. "Tom Landry and Chuck Noll and in recent times we've had that in people like Marv Levy taking the Bills to four straight Super Bowls. Yet, what's his background? His background is he's a history major and almost a professorial type. I think that's the way Marvin is. He's got self confidence. He's got his own way of doing things borne of his own experiences and his own intelligence and his own understanding of the players. What it takes to motivate and lead them."

On Draft Day this past weekend, Tagliabue spoke about the hard times that have enveloped the Bengals the past decade and reiterated the league needs every team to be competitive. He thinks Lewis has the Bengals headed there after three season at PBS in which they've sold out just about a third of their games.

"One of the things that distinguishes the National Football League is the vigor of the competition," Tagliabue said. "In recent years, we've had more than two dozen teams selling out, competitive. Last year, we had a record number of teams competing for playoff spots in the last week of the season. Obviously, the disappointment here in the community has been for a number of years because the Bengals have not been in that category. I think that promises to be reversed now. We want everyone to be in that cycle of success and in that cycle of competition which rewards the fans for their steadfastness."

How much the fans are going to be rewarded this season remains to be seen with a 2-14 team going against a schedule that is in the upper half of the league. No longer does the worst play the worst.

"I'm not interested in parity. I'm interested in tough competition," Tagliabue said. "The schedule format is going to force teams to compete against common opponents for the most part to get to the playoffs. We felt with the salary cap such a leveler, that the old weighted formula schedule which gave the teams with the weaker records in prior year was becoming skewed and perhaps an unfair advantage. Right now, we think the player allocation system, free agency and the salary cap is in sync with this new scheduling formula. If last year is any precursor, we're going to have tremendous competition among a lot of good football teams."

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