The Voice is on the air

2-4-03, 5:20 p.m. Updated:
2-4-03, 9:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals now have one voice and it belongs to head coach Marvin Lewis and on Tuesday he cleared his throat to make some things known:

In the new regime, Jon Kitna is the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback, but Akili Smith has "a fresh start."

Bengals President Mike Brown wants the organization to have one voice, and Lewis is comfortable with the role. Much of the football information that now comes from the team from injuries to free-agent updates is going to come through Lewis instead of a diffuse range of departments. When Dick LeBeau got fired Dec. 30, players said Brown needed to make it clear that the new head coach would have power in the locker room.

Brown and the rest of the front office have sent that message with their silence by letting Lewis do the talking. Lewis doesn't mind. In fact, it's one of the reasons, as well as unfettered access to the power, that made the job so attractive to him after the first interview. He also feels that drives it home to the players.

"It's more important for the players to have that, not necessarily for the rest of the organization," said Lewis of the one voice. "It's probably the best thing for the players. To know where things stand."

Lewis, who thinks Brown and his family have received some unfair criticism, defended Brown Tuesday and said the perception of how he uses the salary cap is wrong. Lewis noted the Bengals have gone over the cap the past two years when incentives have kicked in, a device he admires in contracts. This year it was rookie left tackle Levi Jones' play-time clause that sent the Bengals slightly over the $71 million cap.

"The Bengals have been successful in constructing contracts that have awarded a guy for playing and the standards have been good standards," Lewis said. "If you're able to get a good market deal done that way and get the guy signed, I think that's a plus. It's been good for both sides. It puts the onus on the player, yet he's compensated for it."

Lewis said practices have been closed in his three previous NFL stops, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Washington. It's believed about a third of the NFL teams close practice, but the Bengals have never done it, except in isolated cases when a coach may have bristled at the media for a few days.

If there are to be sponsors or guests to be taken care of, he said it can be done at minicamps and training camps and, as a last resort, Fridays or Saturdays during the season.

"There's got to be focus and within our family," Lewis said. "The players can get used to who is going to be around and it becomes familiar."

It's just another sign Brown is giving Lewis big sway, because Brown has always been for opening practice. That comes a day after the Bengals made their first major hire ever in player personnel with the addition of veteran Bill Tobin as a scouting consultant, a move that helps Lewis in his effort to relieve his assistant coaches of some of their scouting duties.

The Bengals' first chance to keep Spikes off the free-agent market with a transition designation ($4.8 million) or franchise designation ($5.6 million) comes Thursday. They have two weeks to try and get a long-term deal with him because their last day to designate is Feb. 20.

Unlike like the franchise designation, they can take off the transition designation at any point if he doesn't sign the one-year offer. With the franchise tag, they have the right to match any offer, and if they don't, they get a first- and third-round pick as compensation. If they make him a transition free agent, they can match, but would not get compensation if they don't.

Lewis said the Bengals have made a call to Spikes' agent and he hopes player and agent will keep the lines of communication open. If a tag comes as expected, Lewis hopes Spikes will participate in off-season activities.

"I want Takeo to understand the importance and value of being here," Lewis said. "I would like him to be here. It's important for him."

As for Smith, Lewis said he hopes he realizes he's got a second chance.

"I know he had enough talent to be picked as the third player in the country," Lewis said. "I'm not going to give up on him.

"Jon has earned the job, there's no question about that," he said.

With Gus Frerotte gone to free agency, Lewis said the third quarterback could be Joe Germaine or it could be a rookie like USC's Carson Palmer.

"Sure, we'll consider a guy like that," said Lewis of the NFL Draft's first pick. "He's a good player. He's got good stature in the pocket. He has a nice arm. But I want to look at the other quarterbacks, too."

It's a small world. Two years ago, LeBeau got to coach the Bengals in his own right while Lewis, who worked with LeBeau in Pittsburgh, was supposed to be a shoo-in to coach the Bills. But Buffalo didn't work for a variety of reasons for Lewis and his family, and LeBeau's run in Cincinnati only lasted 32 games.

Now, Lewis is running the Bengals and LeBeau could be headed to the Bills as an assistant coach or a consultant helping the defense under coordinator Jerry Gray. His sponsor in Buffalo, Bills president Tom Donahoe, has high regard for him from their days with the Steelers.

LeBeau visited Orchard Park Tuesday, but there was no word Tuesday night on the status of talks. The Bills reportedly already covet Spikes, and LeBeau was one of the reasons the Bengals took him in the first round in 1998.

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