|02-10-2006, 10:00 AM|
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slow NFL newsday file: Bengals
Bengals have homework
Right tackle urges club to settle offensive line contract issues soon
HONOLULU - It's hard to find clouds at the Pro Bowl, where every day is a tourist brochure and coaches dress in flowered shirts. At the AFC practice Thursday, Chad Johnson played cornerback and Shayne Graham aimed kicks at a crooked upright. They're not preparing for war here.
It's not as if Willie Anderson wanted to inject a little reality into the situation. The conversation just went that way. The Bengals' right tackle, 10-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowler mentioned he wanted to establish one of his Fatburger restaurants in town by next season, "because I don't know if I'll be around after that."
All five starting offensive linemen will be in the last year of their contracts next fall. Anderson has been around long enough to understand what money issues can do to the harmony of a locker room.
"They need to go ahead and do something. Leave me out of the picture. If it means free agency, that's great for me," he said.
"I'm trying to keep people worrying about football, not their contracts," Anderson continued.
There are any number of ways good teams get derailed en route to greatness: injuries, bad luck, penalties, turnovers and, yes, jealousy and dissension. Teams that win it all are graced with a fragile and singular unity of purpose that defeats everything else. As Pittsburgh Steelers center Jeff Hartings explained here Thursday: "You have to have the same focus, determination and attention to detail we had the last eight weeks, from when we lost at home to Cincinnati to when we won the Super Bowl. That's not easy."
Anderson knows what could happen if the Bengals don't re-up their linemen. Players who have been contacted by the club to discuss a deal will feel good. Those who have not, won't. That could pit player against club and player against player. Not a great way to build on a division title.
"You don't want to have a situation where everybody's wondering who's going to go to who first," said Anderson. "We all should be worrying about the season. But it's only human nature, guys sitting around asking each other, 'They call you?'
"I'm sure the team is going to worry about who's going to get offended if they're not talked to first. That stuff is already kind of going on right now."
It shouldn't matter whom the team approaches first about an extension. But we are dealing with a combustible mix of egos. We're talking about professional athletes.
Nothing good happens without the offensive line. The linemen are the blueprint for the whole machine. Give Carson Palmer time to throw, he's Marcus Welby in the pocket. As surgeries go, triple bypass is no more impressive than Palmer with time on his hands. Ask Rudi Johnson what Anderson means to him.
Anderson saw a Bengals team come together last fall, allied for the common good. The team lost its way late in the year, because most of its players weren't accustomed to the extra push it took to be even better. The edge came off after Game 12, the win at Pittsburgh that all but clinched the division title. Cincinnati lost three of its last five.
As Anderson put it: "You have to not want to go home. You have to want to stay in Cincinnati until the end of January. We worked so hard to get the division. But winning the division, you get a hat and a T-shirt."
The Pro Bowl is a relaxed time for players. They talk more here than at any other time. From those conversations, Anderson has taken a sense of what to do to be a champion. "I know how other teams work. I know how Denver does it. I listen to Pittsburgh guys' conversations. They make football a top priority, from August to January," said Anderson. "That's what we have to do. No distractions."
He's prepared to walk, he says, for the good of the club. "... I know how that locker room is. To keep from pitting guys against each other, go ahead and sign Levi (Jones) back, sign (Eric) Steinbach back. If you get those two back, that's a good foundation. If that means leaving me out of the picture, so be it," said Anderson. "... Take care of the young guys first."
The club has made the line a contract priority but is sitting tight until an unsettled labor situation becomes clearer, probably by the end of March. Until then, Anderson will wait and wonder. Success in the NFL is a delicate, lucky thing. The best teams don't always win.