6-13-04, 7:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Nate Webster never sold much of his peanuts, popcorn, and candy when he was a teen-aged vendor at the University of Miami football games. He'd sit down, instead, and have a sweet time watching Ray Lewis play middle linebacker.
"If they really wanted it," Webster said, "they'd have to come to me to get it. My favorites were Ray and Warren Sapp. They still are."
Webster is going after what he wants in his first year with the Bengals and his first year as a NFL starter with the same qualities that have fired Lewis' Hall-of-Fame career in Baltimore. Indeed, Webster's brand of sideline-to-sideline speed and chatty 60-minute emotion and leadership are two big pieces in Marvin Lewis' offseason jigsaw designed to change the character of the defense from tentative and plodding to sleek and smart.
"Hey offense," Webster sneered before the first play of a practice this weekend. "You ain't going to get __ today."
His new teammates have noticed the one saying from Webster's Dictionary during their first month together:
"Anybody can go to work," Webster said. "But you have to come to work."
Despite Sunday's steamy humidity, Webster had an all-out, blue-collar stubble going on his chin as the Bengals finished up their mandatory weekend minicamp.
"He has that kind of intensity where the other guys can feed off him because he's very vocal," said Kevin Hardy, whose move to strong-side linebacker made room for Webster in free agency.
"At times (last year) we probably could have used a little more emotion, especially because a lot of our games went down to the fourth quarter and that's when you really need it, and there were times we didn't have it. I think Nate is going to be the kind of guy that really gets guys going when we need to get rolling."
Webster isn't saying he's Ray Lewis. But he's also saying let's wait and see. Who knows after four years with just six starts as a backup player in Tampa Bay to another Hall-of-Famer in Derrick Brooks?
Certainly Marvin Lewis isn't saying it, and he should know as the man who developed Ray into the premier middle man of his era.
"Don't say that. Don't compare him to Ray Lewis. Let him be Nate Webster," Marvin Lewis said. "He's been everything we wanted and more. He's showing command of the group. He has the presence in the locker both in the huddle, on the field and in the meeting room. He's done all that. We've added a leader. Kevin and Brian (Simmons) did an outstanding job last year and we've added another guy who picks up and allows them to grow in other areas."
Yet the Ray-Nate comparison on a style level can't help but be made. Both played at Miami, but the 6-1, 245-pound Ray, 29, was gone when the 6-0, 237-pound Webster, 26, got there in 1997. Both play with their hearts on their sleeves and their names in the tackles column. Webster had 301 hits in just 22 college starts.
"He wants to prove he can be as good as everybody else," Marvin Lewis said, and defensive tackle John Thornton looked in the huddle and said, "You can see he wants to be a great player."
"I remember those days at Miami looking at the Ray tapes," Webster said. "I'm thinking, 'I can do that, I can run from side to side and I did it. His numbers and his records. He had a 20-tackle game and I know I had a couple of 20-tackles. I felt like I got a little backed up playing behind some people (in Tampa), but now I feel like I'm re-born. I've got a fresh start."
Webster is the perfect face for a defense also getting a fresh start after its 28th finish in the NFL stats last season. Two of the holdovers who played their first season in Cincinnati last year, Hardy and Thornton, can see changes.
"Just by the personnel, it's faster than last year," Hardy said. "With Nate in the middle and (cornerback) Deltha (O'Neal) on the outside, it's already a faster, more mature defense."
Thornton likes the fact that anybody can say anything to anybody. And has.
"I think last year there was some soul-searching," Thornton said. "The new guys came in and were afraid to step on the old guys' toes and the older guys didn't really know where they fit in with the younger guys, but we're beyond that now."
Webster gives the Bengals probably what they haven't had since the Steve Tovar days in the mid-90s in a true middle linebacker. Simmons was terrific there for three seasons before they moved him to the weak side, which they say is his more natural position. Certainly, Hardy is back at his natural spot after playing in the middle last season.
"Last year, I brought a lot of football experience as a guy who had been in the league a long time and (Webster) brings some of that same stuff," Hardy said. "But he also gives you a guy who has played that position, where that spot is a little more natural to him."
Hardy is enjoying life without having to call all the signals, but he can help Webster do it. Webster feels like it is a good fit so far between him and Simmons. He hasn't worn a "C," on his jersey, but he hasn't backed down, either, from establishing himself as a leader.
"With their experience in the league, and me being on some winning squads and going to the big dance, I think we'll help each other out," Webster said. "Talking, communication, executing. I'm not trying to show them. I'm just being me. But I can say from high school, I've been emotional and a lot of players around stepped their game up. Just showing that it means a lot."
Webster doesn't like that "whatever attitude." He learned from Brooks that you can always learn at least one thing new from every voluntary or mandatory or training camp you attend.
"One camp you can just look at yourself," Webster said. "Then the next one you look at the whole defense, and then the next one you study the offense and what plays they're running and where the quarterback's eyes go."
Brooks and maybe even Ray Lewis would approve of Webster's first month of a Bengal. He just came to work.