Coslet reaps miracle

The Cincinnati Enquirer

BALTIMORE - The difference in the Cincinnati Bengals is more than merely Bruce Coslet, but he is where you have to start.

When a team with a tendency to collapse responds to a new coach with consecutive fourth-quarter comeback victories, the credit inevitably goes to the guy in charge. Pending a reality check, then, Coslet must be considered a worker of miracles.

The Bengals' 24-21 conquest of the Baltimore Ravens Sunday had many sources, but one overriding theme: Coslet has made believers of a baffled bunch of ballplayers. In his first fortnight on the job, he has convinced the Bengals not to concede at the first sign of struggle. He has preached a more positive outlook and been rewarded with positive reinforcement.

''Our attitude has been adjusted,'' said defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson. ''We really think we have a chance no matter what. I think guys are tired of losing and we have the right leadership behind us. We've really rallied behind Bruce.''

A month ago, Wilkinson said, the Bengals might not have been capable of the comeback they staged Sunday afternoon at Memorial Stadium. They might have despaired at their 21-3 deficit. They might have played the second half on cruise control. They might have watched Scott Brumfield being wheeled off on a gurney and allowed their minds to wander to more important matters.

All of this is speculation, of course. Perhaps Dave Shula's Bengals would have done exactly as Coslet's did Sunday. They might have been able to capitalize on Baltimore's injured cornerbacks, and exploit the erratic arm of Ravens quarterback Vinny Testaverde.

The Bengals may well have won under the previous administration, but they would not have been so confident that they could.

''My first job is to get them to believe in what they can do,'' Coslet said. ''When you are getting beat, week-in and week-out and really under some unusual circumstances, there's a mindset that's affected.

''We can be stronger. Everybody can. We have some guys who can be fine, fine players. They've just got to believe that.''

The journey to football faith is a gradual and sometimes painful process. For the first 30 minutes of Sunday's scrimmage, Coslet's message of hope was of no help. Testaverde was tossing the ball to neglected receivers under negligible pressure. Bengals quarterback Jeff Blake, meanwhile, was off the mark. The Ravens were romping, 21-3, and might have had another touchdown had Testaverde not thrown an ill-advised interception in the end zone.

''Bruce challenged our manhood at halftime,'' said Bengals tackle Joe Walter. ''He said, 'Are you men or are you boys? Are you going to come out here and play this half or are you going to go out and waddle around like you've been doing in the first half?' When a guy challenges your manhood, you're going to have to step up to it.''

This stuff makes for a good story, but football oratory has been overrated since Knute Rockne first opened his mouth. Motivation is much less of a factor in the second half of football games than is precision.

''Let me tell you something,'' Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said Sunday. ''There are more football games lost in the National Football League than are won.''

Clearly this is true of the Cincinnati Bengals. Sunday's victory preserved Coslet's undefeated record, but the team's overall mark moves only to 3-6. Still, the Bengals playoff prospects were preposterous two weeks ago. Sunday, they were upgraded to unlikely.

''When Bruce came in, it was like we were 0-0,'' said cornerback Ashley Ambrose. ''We were going to start a new season under him. I think a lot of guys are more serious about winning now, and you can see that's paying off for us. It's like, 'If you're more serious, this is what happens.'''

Is it Coslet, or coincidence? Good question. Mike Brown arranged his coaching change so that the new man would take over during a comparatively soft spot in the schedule. Jacksonville and Baltimore are both eminently beatable, and have helped Coslet convince his players that anything's possible.

''It's not that simple,'' Ashley Ambrose said. ''But whatever he's doing, let's keep doing it.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Nov. 4, 1996.