By GEOFF HOBSON
Back in his earlier life with the Bengals, when Darryl Williams was the Bengals starting free safety for four seasons, players turnstiled through the secondary. If you can name the four regular strong safeties who lined up with him each season - David Fulcher, Lance Gunn, Louis Oliver and Bracey Walker - then you are one serious Bengals fan.
"I like this mix of guys," Williams said today as he walked off from what his teammates were calling his "Pro Bowl practice."
"Back then, the cornerbacks were older and set in their ways and didn't really want to change," Williams said. "And there was a lot of turnover at strong (safety). What I like about these guys is they want to learn and get better."
How often did you hear that last year?
In fact, how often last year did you see the following:
The Bengals' free safety dropping into coverage, reading the quarterback, and stepping between the passer and receiver as naturally as a school kid stepping into a cross walk and picking off the ball?
Not much. After all, the Bengals' free safeties last season had just two interceptions. But Williams did it today. Sure, it was only in a voluntary workout. But when Williams came back later in the practice and intercepted a tipped ball, well, it was a good time to recall that defensive end John Copeland finished second last season on the team with two interceptions.
Williams lined up at today's workout with 120 NFL starts under his belt. Greg Myers and Cory Hall, the free safeties last season, went into the 1999 season with a combined total of 30. And what about right cornerback Artrell Hawkins, who went into 1999 with all of 16 starts, playing opposite three different cornerbacks who made their first NFL start and another who made his third?
"I look back on that and I don't recommend it," Hawkins said today of that youth movement. "We wanted to do well, but the experience wasn't there, the know how wasn't there, the maturity wasn't there. We weren't bad people, but when you lack something, it shows. And we lacked experience and maturity.
"It's a different feel now," Hawkins said. "Last year we had fun with each other. This year, we're having fun, but when it's time to work, there's a work atmosphere and that's what Darryl brings to the table. More accountability. You always want to play with a guy like Darryl, and you never want a guy like Darryl to think you're not helping his unit."
That's something else you didn't see last year. An older, stabilizing force in a secondary that finished next-to-last in the NFL in yards allowed per pass. Throw in cornerback Tom Carter's 87 career starts (compared to 43 by the rest of the healthy corners), and shouldn't the blown coverage be held to a minimum?
"The thing about Darryl and Tom is they've got their lives in perspective," Hawkins said. "That should help the young guys."
When it comes to the Xs and Os instead of the Ps and Qs, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau knows Williams will be a lift. At his first talk of training camp, LeBeau told the secondary, "When a defensive end is second on the team in interceptions, that's not good."
Williams has seen the good, not to mention the bad and ugly. He's a first-round draft pick from 1992 who went to Seattle via free agency in '96, to the Pro Bowl in '97 and to the playoffs in '99. He began to get pushed out of Seattle's plans last year when new coach Mike Holmgren switched him to strong safety, although he says now, "that's not my position, but I didn't put myself into position to make plays."
But LeBeau will try. When Williams was last here in a 4-3 defense, he pretty much played the middle of the field running sideline-to-sideline. The offense knew where to look for him.
"Now I might be in coverage on one play, then deep middle on the next, or I could be in the half," Williams said. "It's going to be a mixture and that's good because they're never going to know where I'm going to be. That's how (LeBeau) likes to do it. Mix it up. You don't know what's going to happen until you get in pads, but we're not blowing many coverages out here. I try not to make mistakes. The less you make, the better chance you have to win."
LeBeau, who had 62 career interceptions himself in 14 seasons with the Lions, knows better than anyone in Bengaland how an interception can change a game. Now with Williams (29), Carter (25) and the rest of his defensive backs (12), the Bengals secondary finally has more career interceptions than LeBeau.
"Darryl's a proven interceptor," LeBeau said. "But he's a solid NFL safety. That would help anybody."