Trading places

4-9-04, 9:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Deltha O'Neal may have been maligned in Denver, but the Bengals have liked him ever since they watched him cover their own Chad Johnson in last year's regular-season opener.

And, remember the record-setting defense Marvin Lewis put together in Baltimore. Tony Siragusa was supposed to be too fat. Sam Adams was supposed to be too lazy. Michael McCrary was supposed to be too beat up and Rod Woodson was supposed to be too washed up.

Lewis, now the Bengals head coach, loves to get guys with something to prove.

Which is maybe why the Bengals have apparently stalked O'Neal in a trade for nearly two months, or at least since the NFL scouting combine in February, and before they even started pursuing veteran cornerbacks in free agency. They may have even dangled Corey Dillon for him, but after Denver moved past Dillon when they signed running back Garrison Hearst, the Bengals never gave up on the idea of putting the young and athletically gifted O'Neal opposite Tory James at left cornerback.

The notion of adding a 27-year-old one-time Pro Bowler at a position they have lacked for years became reality Thursday night. The Bengals finished off their pursuit of O'Neal when they signed him to a five-year deal that triggered the trade. The Bengals get O'Neal and a fourth-round pick in exchange for swapping first-round picks in moving out of No. 17 to No. 24.

"The talent is there. He hasn't lost what he had. We just have to make sure he doesn't lose his confidence," said Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. "The tendency is to let that stuff get in your head. You can't let it get to your head. I like his play-making ability. We need that, we need more big plays, and he can do that."

Here's a guy who has done things that no Bengals cornerback has done in years. He went to the Pro Bowl after the 2001 season, something a Bengals corner hasn't done since Ashley Ambrose in 1996. He's had nine interceptions in a season, which a Bengal corner hasn't done since Ken Riley in 1976. He was drafted as a corner in the first round, and the Bengals have never drafted a pure cornerback in the first round.

"He's a little bit of a gambler," said one AFC scout Friday. "He gets a break on the ball. He can run, he can change direction. He tries to make plays for you. The negative is he didn't get to play much last year, but as a starting cornerback in a successful defensive scheme, this could be the re-birth of his career. He's a very athletic, smart guy and he's only in his 20s."

But after going to the Pro Bowl in 2001 and enjoying some spectacular moments in an up-and-down 2002, O'Neal found himself buried deep in the doghouse of Denver monarch Mike Shanahan during some rough moments in 2003. He lost his job, made just six starts, was inactive for three games, and was rudely switched to wide receiver. It was a year made tougher by his father's illness.

The breaking point for Shanahan seemed to come after didn't play the ball on David Givens' 18-yard touchdown with 30 seconds left in a 30-26 loss to the Patriots Nov. 3. But on Friday, O'Neal didn't get into it with Shanahan at his introductory Paul Brown Stadium news conference.

"It kind of did. It upset me," said O'Neal of Shanahan's silence on the matter. "I put my life on the line and everything went behind a wall

"I just had a terrible season. Me and Mike Shanahan have always been good friends. It was just about business. I have no bad blood against him. I started my career in Denver and I was happy. I'm moving on. You grow and you learn from your mistakes, and hopefully I wont have many mistakes when I come here,."

O'Neal, the 15th pick in the 2000 draft out of the University of California, says he never lost his confidence.

"It had a lot to do with how I was treated in Denver. I was expecting more I guess you could say," O'Neal said. "It wasn't really confidence. I was just devastated not being on the field, watching my own teammates play. My confidence never left me. It was always going to be there. I just needed the opportunity."

The word is O'Neal is a marvelous athlete, as evidenced by his dangerous return abilities. He was the Broncos' No. 1 punt returner each of his four seasons at Denver with 10.4-yard average for two touchdowns. He also returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and Lewis said O'Neal could share returning the punts with wide receiver Peter Warrick and kicks with wide receiver Patrick Johnson.

But his secondary coach in Denver, former Bengals cornerback Jimmy Spencer, questioned his technique during last season. Spencer told the Rocky Mountain News that O'Neal had to start ``from scratch'' in terms of footwork, technique and positioning of hands.

He's just an athlete. You can see it. It's there,'' Spencer said.But it's applying yourself and doing the little things.''

O'Neal has a great desire to make the big play, but he knows what he has to work on.

"They have confidence in my game, to make plays," O'Neal said. "I think every corner takes chances. You just have to know when it's the right time to take a chance. Hopefully Coach can give me some pointers on when not to take chances."

O'Neal is extremely impressed with the defense of Lewis and Frazier, and if Lewis knows he took guys with second chances to the record books, O'Neal was watching.

"Their success," said O'Neal when asked what he liked about the defensive system. "How he's not always looking for interceptions, how he wants you to just make a play and bat the ball down when we need it. When we do need an interception, get it for us. I like what he did with (Ravens cornerback) Chris McAlister. He made him a superstar that he is now. Hopefully I can follow along with that."

O'Neal admitted he had heard bad things about the Bengals. But after getting the chance to work out once with Warrick and Chad Johnson and after seeing Lewis' team up close in Denver's 30-10 victory on Opening Day, O'Neal was flattered when he found out the Bengals were coming after him.

"Over the years, I had heard awful things about Cincinnati," O'Neal said. "I had heard when Jimmy Spencer was here he just used to complain saying this is the worst place to be. Then on the flip side of it, I talked to Peter Warrick and Chad Johnson (and they said), 'We're doing wonderful things. Marvin is changing the whole program around.'

"For them to pan out the way they did last season was incredible," O'Neal said. "They believe it. They believed it before the season started. 'It all came together and this man is really bringing us together,' and they did it and he did it. I applaud him for that. That's a wonderful thing for a team that's always been on the low end."

O'Neal's eyes grew wide when told the Bengals hadn't made the playoffs since 1990, knowing they had a chance to make it on the final Sunday this past season.

"If they did that in his first year," O'Neal said, "I can only imagine what we're going to do the next five or six years."

No doubt O'Neal hopes at the same time someone will be saying that about his own career, which now fits nicely into a franchise trying to make the most its own second chance.

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