12-19-02, 7:10 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander has always said he has to make sure if Lorenzo Neal is playing with a leather helmet because he is such a throwback.
Well, the NFL players and coaches celebrated "Throwback Thursday," when they voted Neal to the Pro Bowl in a victory for traditional lead-blocking, blue-collar, no-nonsense fullbacks everywhere. The rosters for the Feb. 2 game were released Thursday night and the starters will be named Jan. 4, but Neal is the lone AFC fullback.
"He's the best blocking fullback I've ever seen," said Bengals President Mike Brown of the 32nd Bengal and their first true fullback to be named to the Pro Bowl. "He's a guy who always shows up and does his job. To play that kind of position on a team with our record and to be honored like that shows that he's well thought of."
Neal's selection is a more than mild upset because voters usually go for pass-catching fullbacks, and he was mired for much of the fan voting in sixth place. But Buffalo's Larry Centers, down to 41 catches in a new offense, didn't repeat when they went for Neal's blocking.
"It really surprised me," said quarterback Jon Kitna. "I thought at the beginning of the year, definitely (Neal would make it). But in the last three or four games, he hasn't really caught the ball. It just goes to show that guys look at our team and look at how guys like Zo play and the things he does blocking wise. I couldn't be more happier for anyone in this room."
Neal, who turns 32 next week, called it the end of a long, tough journey to get to Hawaii, the Pro Bowl site he reverently refers to as "over the water."
"I've been an alternate for a couple of years and don't know if you're ever going to get over there," Neal said. "It makes it that much sweeter, makes me appreciate it a lot more.
"I know I didn't fare well in the fan voting, but it just goes to tell you that the coaches and the players, that 's where I think it means a lot. I was glad they noticed me and they gave me the vote that I needed to get me over."
The vote of the fans, players and coaches each count a third. The fan vote breaks ties, but what it computes to Neal's value on the free-agent market remains to be seen. Neal refuses to talk about the specifics of his contract situation, but it's believed an offer earlier in the season that was slightly more than the $750,000 minimum salary didn't go very far.
"I figured I'd concentrate on playing and hopefully I'd be in a position that I am now," Neal said. "I took the gamble. Hopefully,
it worked out.
"Hopefully, you make yourself more marketable," Neal said. "I don't put that much weight on the Pro Bowl because I felt there were years I've been overlooked for whatever reason. Maybe it's a situation where teams and clubs say, 'Hey, this guy made the Pro Bowl. He's the best at his position.' Maybe it does merit a raise or whatever. I'll take that when it gets here. Right now, I'm just preparing to play the Saints."
The man helping him prepare for the Saints, running backs coach Jim Anderson, marked the fourth straight year he coached a Pro Bowl player. Running back Corey Dillon's run of three straight appearances looks to be over with a third alternate selection, but Neal joins Dillon, James Brooks and Harold Green as Pro Bowlers coached by Anderson during his 19 years in Cincinnati.
"It's a tribute to him," said Anderson of the voters not casting their lots with the usual pass-catchers. "He goes out every day and does his job. He's a worker. He takes a tremendous amount of pride in his job. It's rewarding, especially in this type of season we've had. It does show you can get something if you strive for it."
And there's no question Neal dearly wanted the honor after a Susan Lucci-like nine tries. He thanked Bengals public relations director Jack Brennan and the media for spreading the word.
"When he first got here," said right tackle Willie Anderson of May of 2001, "I asked him how many Pro Bowls he had been to. I was surprised he had never been. He's been an alternate a few times, but he's well deserving of this. I think it shows just how devastating his blocks are. You can't help but notice them."
Neal also thinks he got noticed a little more because offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski used him more in the running game and Kitna used him more in the passing game.
Neal's two catches last Sunday gave him 20 for 133 yards this season and stopped a drought of three games without a catch. He has nine carries for 31 yards, his most yardage since 1996 with the Saints and his most carries since he had 10 with the Jets in 1997.
"This year has been good to me," Neal said. "Jon Kitna threw some passes to me this year, Bratkowski put some runs in for me. I don't deserve the credit. A lot of the other guys helped me out this year. The offensive line with their blocking when I ran the ball and Kitna throwing me the ball and Bratkowski believing in me."
How much the market will believe in him should be interesting. Neal, who has been reported to be making $700,000 this season, won't say, but he is apparently looking for a nice raise. The Bengals do want him back and plan to pursue it after the season.
"I said that six weeks ago," Kitna said. "They never should have let him become a free agent. He's too good."
The Titans didn't want to pay him $700,000 two years ago because the fullback doesn't play every down. But what would they pay now since running back Eddie George's yards have fallen off the past two years and Neal has continued to play well?
If the Bengals don't sign him before March 4 and he goes on the market, Neal is going to have plenty of company in free agency. Miami's Rob Konrad, New England's Marc Edwards, Oakland's Jon Ritchie, the Cardinals' Joel Makovicka, and Seattle's Mack Strong are other fullbacks headed that way. The Bengals' own Nicolas Luchey is also a free agent after the season.
But Neal is making sure he's not burning bridges. Reminded last year that Titans coach Jeff Fisher complained that some times Neal went the wrong way, Neal joked Wednesday if he might go the wrong way to Hawaii.
"But Jeff is a friend. We joke around," Neal said.
But at least on this "Throwback Thursday," the players and coaches didn't offer a joke and went with a real fullback.