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Wednesday, April 23, 2003
Updated: April 26, 9:26 AM ET
 
Bad luck, misjudgment contributed to picks
By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

In his first three months on a job that he plans to keep well beyond his initial five-year contract as an NFL head coach, Marvin Lewis has brought structure and discipline and single-mindedness of purpose to a Cincinnati Bengals franchise in dire need of all three of those precious commodities.

Now comes the most daunting challenge for the Bengals rookie coach: Trying to keep Mel, Boomer and Mort from giggling into their microphones when Cincinnati officially reveals on Saturday at noon the prospect it has chosen with the top pick in the draft.

"We will," promised Lewis earlier this week, "dispel another myth."

Given that the Bengals will choose Southern California quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, in a secret more poorly kept than the plans to attack Iraq, it could be difficult even for the ESPN draft moguls to heap criticism on a Cincinnati brain trust whose football acumen has been publicly derided for years.

Successful picks
While the Cincinnati Bengals have botched many of their first-round choices, especially in recent years, some of their other choices haven't been quite as bad. Here are the seven best picks, dating back to 1993, the franchise made after the first round:

  • RB Corey Dillon: A second-round choice in 1997, Dillon was a bit of a character gamble, and was certainly no choir boy when the Bengals used the 43rd overall choice in that draft for him. But he has become, if a malcontent, an annual 1,000-yard rusher and the team's offensive centerpiece.

  • LB Steve Foley: The strongside linebacker was a third-rounder in 1998, and the 75th player chosen overall, but has started in three of the last four years. The only reason he did not start in 2002 was because he was sidelined for the season by a knee injury during the exhibition schedule. The veteran can play over the tight end, stacks well, and is a solid anchor against the run.

  • WR Chad Johnson: The third-year veteran, a second-round choice in 2001, matured both emotionally and physically in 2002. He had 69 receptions for 1,166 yards and five touchdowns, while starting in 14 games. He has learned that work ethic is essential at the NFL level, wants to be good, and should become the team's go-to receiver.

  • TE Tony McGee: The longtime short- and intermediate focus of the Cincinnati passing game for years, McGee is now with the Dallas Cowboys. He all but disappeared his final few seasons in Cincinnati, when the Bengals quit throwing the ball to the tight end, but was a very solid second-round choice in 1993.

  • CB Artrell Hawkins: The five-year veteran has been a starter much of his career, at least when he wasn't fighting through injuries, and is an underrated defender. A second-round pick in 1998, he has 63 career starts, with eight interceptions. He might be more suited to being a "nickel" corner and, with the free agency addition of veteran Tory James, might eventually be moved into that role.

  • DT Kimo von Oelhoffen: Now playing defensive end in the Steelers' 3-4 front, he labored for six seasons with the Bengals (1994-99). Hardly spectacular, but the team got a lot more than it ever anticipated from the sixth-rounder in 1994.

  • WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh: Not a speed burner, but the seventh-rounder in 2001 (the 204th player chosen overall) is a nice complement to Chad Johnson, his former college teammate. A possession receiver who caught 41 passes for 492 yards in 2002, starting in five games. Should be a solid No. 3 receiver for years.
  • After all, Palmer would be the choice of many teams if they possessed the top pick, and is near-universally regarded as a top-shelf prospect in a pitifully shallow 2003 talent pool. So for once, at least, the Bengals won't serve as the organizational pin-cushion for those snide verbal needles emanating from draft pundits.

    What the team and its first-year head coach cannot expunge with one move, though, is a draft history rife with chancy choices, silly selections and pungent picks. If, as Lewis has suggested on at least two occasions in his brief tenure, this is "a new day" for the Bengals franchise, there are some old draft skeletons that need to be exterminated from the closet.

    Lewis has already demonstrated a healthy bent for not repeating history and, that's a good sign, since few long-suffering Cincinnati loyalists want to sit through a regurgitation of the team's more notorious first-round blunders. But just for the heck of it, one last dose of nausea, inflicted by this roll call of woe: James Francis (1990), Alfred Williams (1991), David Klingler (1992), John Copeland (1993), Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson (1994), Ki-Jana Carter (1995), Akili Smith (1999), and Peter Warrick (2000).

    Bad enough that none of that group ever lived up to expectations, at least not while a part of the Cincinnati organization. Far worse, though, is that six of the eight were top 10 selections, including two No. 1 choices overall, and seven were chosen among the first 12 players in their respective lotteries. The group includes four picks in the top five.

    Rarely has a team been so regularly well-positioned in drafts and reaped so little from their typically lofty perch.

    Prospects taken so high in a draft are supposed to represent the underpinnings of an NFL franchise and not undermine its viability. The lottery is, for sure, an inexact science. But the "war room" laboratory which produced such a horrid stretch of first-round faux pas by the Bengals clearly had little concept of how to conjure up the formula for draft success.

    "For one thing, there probably have been too many voices in the room, people with their own agendas," said one former Cincinnati assistant who was part of the proceedings there for many years and continues to work in the league. "The perception outside the building, certainly among the fans, is that (owner) Mike Brown calls all the shots. But that isn't the case, even though he is kind of a final word on things, in some situations. To me, though, the bigger problem was that you had scouts, coaches and personnel people in there … and that everyone had an opinion. It got hard, at times, coming to a consensus."

    That too-many-chiefs approach will certainly become passé this year, given that Lewis wields considerably more sway than his recent predecessors, and that there is apt to be a concentration of power that has not existed in Cincinnati in the past. The Bengals still use their coaches to do much of the scouting, given they have one of the smallest personnel staffs in the NFL, but even that practice won't follow prior procedures.

    By hiring longtime league personnel chief Bill Tobin as a consultant, the franchise has added a knowledgable talent evaluator, a man who has presided over war rooms for other NFL teams. He will bolster the tandem of Jim Lippincott and Duke Tobin, the Bengals' incumbent super scouts, and provide another set of well-practiced eyes.

    Lippincott has protested in the past that the Bengals' draft budget is commensurate to that of other clubs and that the notion the Brown family scrimped on scouting was ill-founded. But the numbers indicated the team needed more help in assessing draft classes, and by adding Tobin and fellow consultant John Cooper, the shortcoming has been modestly addressed at least.

    But even when the Bengals make prudent choices -- as was the case in 2002, when the team used the 10th overall selection on offensive tackle Levi Jones -- the critics are still out in full force. Ironic is the fact that, shortly after the Jones selection, numerous NFL personnel chiefs lauded the choice. The pick was made with the understanding that aging left tackle Richmond Webb probably would not be back with the team in 2003, and as it turns out he won't be, and the Bengals wanted to begin grooming his successor.

    Notable is that, one choice after the Bengals, the Indianapolis Colts made an even bigger "reach" in grabbing defensive end Dwight Freeney. No one criticized Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy or general manager Bill Polian and, in fact, the Freeney selection turned out to be a brilliant one. But on draft day, long before anyone might have considered that the undersized Freeney would notch 13 sacks as a rookie, it was a stretch that was ignored, in large part because of Dungy's popularity.

    In passing on prospects like tight end Jeremy Shockey, cornerback Phillip Buchanon and wide receiver Donté Stallworth, though, the Bengals forfeited the opportunity to secure a player who would almost certainly have made an immediate contribution. That said, the choice of Jones wasn't nearly as zaftig as it was made out to be. And there is this fact as well: Of the last eight first-round choices exercised by the Bengals, five are projected as starters in 2003 and a sixth is a key situational contributor.

    Another of those first-rounders, standout linebacker Takeo Spikes, was a five-year starter but exited in free agency earlier this spring. Right tackle Willie Anderson, who is noted as a chronic underachiever, nonetheless remains one of the NFL's top players at his position. Defensive right end Justin Smith is an emerging force. Linebacker Brian Simmons is one of the league's best unknown defenders and could blossom this season by moving from the middle and into the weak-side vacancy created by Spikes' departure.

    Still, it is hard for the Bengals to dodge the brickbats, given their history.

    In many cases, the team just erred badly, and in others it reached a bit. There is a feeling on the part of some league observers, as well, that the Bengals feel that, because they have problems attracting veteran free agents to a losing franchise, they are forced to take more draft gambles than other clubs. There have been times, for sure, when the Bengals rolled the dice on a player other franchises regarded as a character risk, hoping that the prospect would toe the line off the field, and perform up to his potential on it.

    But longtime Bengals players and officials know that, no matter what occurs for the first few years under Lewis, escaping the stigmas of past drafts is about as tough as getting red wine out of a white table cloth.

    "It might take five, six, seven great drafts in a row," said Anderson, "for people to finally stop ripping us on draft day. But, hey, that's how it goes. We've made ourselves too easy a target for all those Bengals bashers out there, you know? Every team in the league can have some kind of (mitigating) reason for why a first-round pick didn't work out. For us, well, no one gives us the benefit of the doubt."

    Of course, contrary to popular opinion, Cincinnati officials didn't make all the dubious choices that are a part of their litany of woe by tossing darts at a draft board. There were, at least in the minds of team officials, well-founded reasons for each of the selections.

    "They certainly seemed to be sound (picks) when they were made," said former Bengals head coach David Shula. "But it just goes to show how much a crapshoot the draft really can be. But we all felt the judgments on those guys were good. They were well-thought out and based on what we believed would happen."

    In the case of Klingler, for instance, the team bought into the idea that incumbent starter Boomer Esiason was unhappy with the firing of head coach Sam Wyche and would ask to be traded. Wilkinson was viewed as a consensus top pick around the league, but Bengals officials gambled they could get him beyond the well-documented malaise that had often plagued him in college. The club actually moved up the board in '95 to select Carter, and felt he could be a perennial 1,000-yard rusher, before injuries marred his career. Smith was grabbed in 1999 because Brown felt that year's quarterback class was superb and that the franchise needed to take advantage of the depth at the position.

    Perhaps the most notable bobble that year was the Bengals' decision to reject overtures from the New Orleans Saints, who wanted to surrender their entire draft class for the right to take Ricky Williams. Had the organization made that deal, it could have chosen corner Champ Bailey, perhaps reaped a draft bounty with the later selections, and maybe even reversed the course of club history.

    Now that charge falls to Marvin Lewis, who has promised to draft on a player's deeds and not just to fill team needs. Lewis has watched some of the NFL's premier personnel men, Tom Donahoe and Tom Modrak during a tenure in Pittsburgh and the Baltimore Ravens' Ozzie Newsome, play the draft board well. This weekend will begin to demonstrate just how good a student he was in those past draft tutorials.

    It might take five, six, seven great drafts in a row, for people to finally stop ripping us on draft day. But, hey, that's how it goes. We've made ourselves too easy a target for all those Bengals bashers out there, you know?
    Bengals RT Willie Anderson

    Like his predecessors, though, Lewis will need what every draft maven requires: a touch of good fortune. It is absurd to suggest the Cincinnati first-rounders have been cursed, but given that Ki-Jana Carter was injured in his first preseason or that Klingler was difficult to project because he has played in a run-and-shoot offense at the University of Houston, one might make a convincing case that what the franchise needs even more than standout players is an exorcist.

    One area where Lewis should make a difference, long after the Bengals draft is evaluated by the pundits, is in being able to elicit better performances from the choices. There can be no denying that Cincinnati officials have flat-out missed on some choices. But an element of those whiffs was in the shortcomings of some of the coaches. Some players definitely were not tutored well and, while it is preposterous to defend the Akili Smith selection in hindsight, notable is that he was surrounded by very little talent.

    Choosing the players, Lewis likely would agree, is just the first half of the equation. You then, in the vernacular, have to "coach 'em up," which is the primary job description that Lewis will undertake.

    In both instances, the lackluster track record of the past notwithstanding, the Bengals are likely to show marked improvement in 2003.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.