Weights and means

3-17-03, 8:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

You wanted a housecleaning?

Try a 15,000-pound broom. A $250,000 dust pan.

As in the sweeping renovation of the Bengals' weight room that greets players for the first day of voluntary workouts a week from Monday at Paul Brown Stadium and matches the overhaul of the club's strength and conditioning program.

Last Friday night, the only items in the room were two mop buckets.

The walls were either plastered with fresh white paint or mirrors. A huge mural of a Bengals' tiger head glared from one wall. On the two pillars in the middle of the room were the beginnings of orange and black stripes. One pillar is to say "Bengals." The other is to say "Strength."

"It's like a whole different team," says defensive end Justin Smith, one of a handful of players who have sampled the new regimen. "If we're all here and we get in better shape, that will just help us out that much more. It will be like upgrading a player at every position just by being in better shape."

"A whole different team."

That's the idea new strength coaches Chip Morton and Kurtis Shultz have been pushing with the man who brought them here. And that's another thing that is going to be painted on the wall.

"Finish," is one of head coach Marvin Lewis' standbys.

But this is all about starts. Looks can be everything. Especially a first impression. The weight room, a constant knock against this team the last several years for a variety of reasons, is the first place Lewis gets to tell his players there is a new day. The details, from the trim to the treadmills, should do the talking.

Morton, in his third NFL stop with Lewis, pulled off one of the bigger off-season moves when he sold management on a quarter-of-a-million-dollar overhaul for his den of power.

Instead of the old basement-like look, the coaches have flooded the room with new lights and improved cardio equipment, while paving the way for more than 50 new pieces of weight machines that have matching white frames and orange and black pads.

From a studio apartment to Studio 54.

But first, Morton, the head man in the room who has his head coach's Felix Unger-like attention to detail, wants the floor cleaned.

"We're trying to have a room that hopefully will be a place where they want to be," Morton says. "We're creating an environment where they are motivated to train hard, have pride, and where they can have more variety. Where they don't feel like they have to be some place else.

"The Brown family has been tremendous," Morton says. "They haven't said no to anything."

One of the criticisms of last year's team is that it was woefully out of shape for Opening Day, when the Chargers gassed them, 34-6, on a 90-degree day in Cincinnati. Their off-season-program has not been well attended the past several years and it has come under withering fire during a stretch they have gone 17-74 in September and October since 1991 under four different head coaches.

"I remember opening up Paul Brown Stadium against Cleveland," says right guard Mike Goff of the 24-7 loss in 2000. "I remember how the Cleveland players were saying we were out of shape. I would never want that to be the case. With Chip and Kurtis here, it won't be the case."

The 5-11 Morton, 40, and his assistant, the 6-6, 290-pound Shultz, 31, are getting a little tired of the "Mutt and Jeff," jokes. But Lewis brought them together largely because of their differences.

Morton has been to Super Bowls with two different teams (San Diego and Baltimore) as he starts his 12th season in the NFL. Shultz is a NFL rookie who played basketball at Maryland under coach Gary Williams and then helped Williams and his tear-the-heart-out-of-the-chest Terps to the NCAA title last year as their strength coach.

"Kurtis brings a different, fresh approach," Morton says. "He won't be parroting me."

Shultz gets an endorsement from the most famous Bengal of them all, fellow Maryland product Boomer Esiason.

"Kurtis is just the kind of guy they need there," Esiason says. "If you saw what Maryland did last year, they just out-physicalled and out-conditioned teams. It was always a knock in Cincinnati even with our good teams, particularly with our defense. We always heard about it. We were too soft. With Chip and Kurtis there, it's a big step."

The only soft spot Shultz has is for the Terps in the NCAAs. He became fairly well known as Ravens Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis' personal trainer. Together, they would defy reason and run up one of Maryland's more challenging ski slopes with 45-pound weights on their backs.

"But the thing about Kurtis," says Victor Brick, a Maryland fitness guru who employed Shultz in his gyms, "is that he would be working with Ray and do some stuff with the Ravens and then come back in the gym and the housewives loved him. He's able to relate to all kinds. He knows how to motivate people."

Shultz, a former kick boxer, has instituted a boxing drill in which players strap on gloves and work him or a bag for 30 to 45 minutes or so.

"It's just like football to an extent," Shultz says. "You might throw a flurry of punches for about six to 10 seconds, move around a little bit, and you get the heart rate going up and down. But to do it for such a long time, it becomes aerobic. It's like playing in a football game. It improves you fundamentally. It's good for your core, all the twisting you do is really good for the abs. Just the shoulder strength from punching forward helps."

So far, the early reviews are rave. Smith likes the boxing because it beats the monotony of the treadmill, and the jabbing isn't so far off what a defensive end has to do on his way to the passer.

And, Morton says, "it's fun," which is a key part of the routine. Check that. Morton thinks routine is a bad word.

"The way they set it up, you don't feel like you're doing the same thing over and over again," Goff says. "They switch up workouts so you don't feel like you're falling into the same routine, so you don't get bored and don't want to do it."

Probably the key difference the players will find in Morton's room is variety. He seeks a balanced approach, so he will have a more liberal use of barbells and free weights, as well as the weight machines the Bengals have traditionally used for the bulk of their work.

The players can tell the coaches are pushing cardio, jacking up sets so there isn't much room to rest, and, at times, they've had to adjust to the pace.

Morton ("There's a lot more technology out there now") has dragged in treadmills that allow faster speeds and greater elevations, plus they are built to withstand heavier players and stronger runners.

"There's a lot more emphasis on not just being strong," Smith says, "but being able to maintain that strength all four quarters. Being able to play the game like you started out."

It isn't the $64,000 question. It's the 2-14 question. The 17-74 question. Have they been out of shape?

"It's been a knock on us every year I've been here," says Goff, who arrived in 1998. "I don't think we were better or worse than most teams. But I don't think it will be a question now."

"I thought last year we were in as good as shape with all the other teams," Smith says. "But it's like I said. If we're all here getting in better shape, we become a better team."

Part of Morton's handiwork involves inspiration. He has spent his two months here leafing through Paul Brown's autobiography to find a fitting quote by the Bengals' founder. Morton won't say what the quote is, but it will go above the coaches' office in the weight room.

Brown's picture will be the only one in the weight room. The picture of Anthony Munoz, the only other Bengal in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, will go in the adjoining hallway to be part of a future exhibit.

"The themes are the same now as they were then," Morton says. "Accountability, integrity, character, outwork, outfinish. Coach Brown called them the eternal verities. Those are the things you look for in free agents. I think that's what we've done. Found the right guys."

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