Sunday, April 21, 2002

Bengals' timing might be right


A good left tackle doesn't need to be great

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       Levi Jones need not be another Anthony Munoz. He can be a lot less and still be more than adequate. He can be an impact player without being an immortal.

        The Cincinnati Bengals are not often associated with excellence, but their standards at left tackle are lofty. Since Munoz pretty much defined the position, Jones starts out synonymous with second-rate. As the third tackle taken in Saturday's NFL draft, the Arizona State senior already is being disparaged as a “reach.”

        Yet amid all the hype and hysteria attending pro football's annual flea market lies a simple truth: A capable player at a key position can be as valuable as a star somewhere else.

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        You weigh left tackles both literally and figuratively. Because they block the blind side of right-handed quarterbacks, the good ones are indispensable. Because the Bengals' incumbent left tackles — Richmond Webb and John Jackson — are 35 and 37, perhaps this was a good time to replenish the position.

        Offensive linemen rarely register at the box office. They seldom score touchdowns, and their best work is often overlooked by fans conditioned to follow the ball. But if you don't have a decent left tackle, you're liable to wind up with a starting quarterback on in jured reserve, a running game that grinds to a halt and an unemployed head coach.

        Left tackles are like caulk. You don't notice them until they start leaking.

        “Anthony (Munoz) showed you what a good left tackle can mean,” Bengals owner Mike Brown said. “You don't worry about the position when you have that guy. ... We aren't expecting (Jones) to come in and be like Anthony Munoz. We just want him to come in and be a good solid player at that spot.”

        Brown probably would have preferred to pick Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington — when in doubt, Brown always wants the quarterback — but Detroit deprived him of that temptation. He could have filled a more urgent need with Miami cornerback Phillip Buchanon. He might have been able to trade down from the No.10 position and still get Jones plus an additional draft choice.

        Instead, he stayed put. He stood pat. And he made the sensible selection instead of the spectacular one. Judging Jones at this point is premature — until they actually compete in the NFL, all draft choices are projections — but the Bengals' rationale is reasonable.

        You can't win if you can't compete up front. You can't throw the ball effectively if the person doing the passing comes to resemble a pretzel. You can't shove the ball down the defense's throats if you can't get it back to the line of scrimmage.

        “I can envision Corey Dillon with the ball under his arm and this guy making a point of attack and cutting off guys from the back side,” Bengals coach Dick LeBeau said. “There was no way I was unattracted to this player.”

        Offensive line coach Paul Alexander said Jones was probably the most athletic tackle available in this year's draft. Does that make him another Munoz? Is that a fair comparison for anyone?

        “That's like asking: How does he compare to Babe Ruth?” Brown said.

        Jones understands he's striding into a giant's shadow. Like all the Reds catchers since Johnny Bench, he's virtually doomed to disappoint.

        “I remember a lot about Anthony Munoz,” Levi Jones said. “I've watched him on film — his instructional camp (video) on how to be a left tackle. I've learned a lot watching him play. In my mind, he's the best offensive left tackle to ever play the game. My offensive line coaches were big on him. They would try to make sure I had his fundamentals down and be as much like him as I possibly could.”

        Half as good might be good enough.

        E-mail tsullivan@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/sullivan.

       



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- SULLIVAN: Bengals' timing might be right
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Nose for ball Thompson's key strength
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