11-13-01, 6:35 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The first time around, Bengals fullback Lorenzo Neal bit his tongue.
Remember back on Sept. 12, a day before the Bengals-Titans game was postponed?
Remember when Titans coach Jeff Fisher said his team didn't miss Neal's blocking for All-Pro Eddie George from the previous two seasons?
Remember when Fisher said this about a guy let go because of salary cap reasons?
""He wouldn't always block the right guy, but he'd do it 100 miles per hour. . . Lorenzo (was) probably involved in the running game 15 to 20 to 25 percent of the time. We didn't feature a two-back running game all the time.
"We struggled the last two years with Lorenzo. As a matter of fact, Eddie averaged only 54 yards a game in September in '99, then in 2000 he got up to 70 yards a game in September. Those years were with Lorenzo, so we just, for whatever reason, if I knew what it was, we've struggled in the run game."
Neal remembers because Fisher and his coaches have kept saying it every week to somebody while George continues to struggle. During the season's first half, George's uniform number of 27 usually matched his yards per carry.
But with the Titans at Paul Brown Stadium off Monday night's 16-10 loss to Baltimore that makes them 3-5, Neal couldn't let it go anymore.
"You can't get in a pissing contest with a skunk because you can't win," said Neal Monday, admitting he's shocked and disappointed by Fisher's comments.
"Eddie has had good years without me and with me," Neal said. "I'm not some magic wand, but I know I bring attitude. I know I'm going to play hard. The last two years, you look at the stats before I got there and when I was there, Eddie had his best years for yards rushing. Hopefully because I was blocking the wrong guy if you talk to Coach Fisher. Hopefully because I was blocking the wrong guy."
There have been grumblings in the Titans' locker room about losing Neal and what a negative impact it has had on and off the field. And Neal has heard from some of his ex-mates that they were shocked to hear what Fisher has been saying.
"Coaches have to do what they have to do," Neal said.
Let the week begin.
The Bengals love him even though he's not always on the field in front of Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon.
But the thing is, he's always in the facility during Tuesday's off day. He's always poking his head into the meeting rooms of other positions during the week. He's always taking Dillon under his wing, introducing him to golf, playing pool, and going to each other's homes.
He's participating 100 percent in team chemistry in a locker room starved for veteran leadership. There were Bengal coaches whispering 'Pro Bowl,' long before "The Sporting News," put him on their first half All Pro team.
And, by the way, his uniform jersey of 41 matches Dillon's yards per carry.
So you know Neal is telling his teammates this:
" I know what they're saying in Tennessee (about the Bengals)," Neal said. "'Hit them in the mouth. They'll quit.' I've been there when (Fisher has) said that in meetings. 'They haven't had success. They'll find a way to lose.'
"They believe they can win," Neal said. "If I was the champion, wouldn't you think you can win? That's how they've got to think. We have to play at the top of our game. They're a very dangerous team."
They are also twice as dangerous now that they have been wounded at 3-5 and need a win over the 4-4 Bengals to stay in it. Like Neal said, "We've got our back up against it, they've got their back up against it."
But Neal rooted for the Titans Monday night so they can, "tighten this
thing up, next week we drop them back again, and get a run going here. I just want to get consistent. That's what is frustrating. Up one week, down the next."
Neal's advice is that the Bengals are pressing. The harder they try, the harder it gets. Maybe ease off the pedal a bit. Don't get so tight: "We've got the talent here. If we weren't good enough, I would tell these guys. But we are."
Neal has no animosity toward his former mates and he keeps in touch with many of them regularly, particularly safety Blaine Bishop. And he suggests that he still has respect for Fisher and he feels Fisher still respects him.
Neal laughed about some not very flattering quotes by Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, recalling when he was working out in Nashville in the offseason and how Heimerdinger told him how much they needed him.
"(Fisher) probably gets so many questions about it," Neal said. "I don't think it's personal. He probably gets kind of fed up everytime he turns around and there's a question about the running game."
Cincinnati uses Neal more than Fisher's 15 to 25 percent. But in last Sunday's 30-13 loss in Jacksonville, Neal figures it's the least he's played as a Bengal because they got behind so quickly in the third quarter and had to throw.
He won't kid you. In his ninth year as one of the NFL's premier blocking fullbacks, he wants "to go over the water," and play in his first Pro Bowl in Hawaii. But he knows how players and coaches vote.
"Unfortunately, when guys vote, they look at the paper, see all the numbers, and sometimes we'll get squeezed," Neal said. "Last year, I was an alternate and sometimes it's frustrating. You're working hard, banging people and you don't go. I would really like to go. I'd be lying if I said I didn't. . . .So I've got to pick it up. My success is predicated on what 28 does. I definitely want to get the ball in his hands."
Neal, who was making about $1 million per year with the Titans and is making about $700,000 with the Bengals this season, left the Titans for a variety of reasons.
Back in September, he told the Tennessee media, "I think it was a combination. . .I think it was a situation where if a person's making [a lot]. Let's face it, we're in the National Football League, so it's great to be in a position ... This is not an ordinary job.
"We're blessed to be in this league and some of us as players we take it for granted. . .(we're) blessed to make the money we make. But if a person is making a dollar and is asked to take 50 cents out of that dollar, I'm not going to be as apt to do that. If I'm making a dollar and you want 50 cents of it, that's a big cut. If you're making a dollar and someone wants three cents or 10 cents out of it – I'm just using those numbers – then you're more apt to do that. I was not a guy that was a $2-, $3- or $4-million guy."
In Cincinnati, his presence has been priceless. Receivers coach Steve Mooshagian, who recruited him to Fresno State 15 years ago and to the Bengals back in the spring, isn't surprised. The minister's son was always eager and sincere.
Neal won't bat an eye walking into Mooshagian's meeting room with his young players, fire out his pet phrase about a hot receiver, "Give him the ball. Let the big dog eat," and dispense some wisdom before moving along to running backs coach Jim Anderson's office and watch some extra film.
"He's an animal," said rookie receiver Chad Johnson of Neal's work ethic.
"All I know," said quarterback Jon Kitna, who comes in on the off day to get the game plan, "is what ever time I get in here on Tuesdays, he's always here."
He'll be here Sunday, too, and Neal knows Fisher will be, too.
"This game isn't about me or I," Neal said. "It's about we, us, winning and getting back into the race."
Let the week begin.