Preseason comes to end on sour note

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Today's column carries a disclaimer. Lasting conclusions are always perilous in preseason football, and they are downright dumb when based on the final exhibition game.

This is the time when the regulars play not to get hurt and the backups play not to get cut. This is the time stars look like slackers and second-stringers imagine themselves immortal. Coaches pare their playbooks to basic plays and ''vanilla'' coverages. An impressionable sportswriter might confuse David Klingler for a big-time quarterback or Sam Wyche for serene.

We have learned our lesson on this score and vow not to get fooled again. Hence we are saving our superlatives this morning and pulling our punches. If you see a sentence here that seems a little too sure of itself, it is because the editors deleted the qualifiers and vaporized the vacillating.

That said, the Cincinnati Bengals established themselves as a team of destiny in Friday's 24-17 loss to Detroit. They are, it seems clear, destined to open the regular season next Sunday in St. Louis.

Bengals don't escape

You want insight? OK. Lee Johnson is not going to lead this team in tackles. The Bengal punter's attempt to bring down Detroit's Richard Woodley during the Lion's 80-yard touchdown return suggested a man trying to lasso a locomotive.

Otherwise, conviction was in short supply.

''The best thing that happened,'' said Lions coach Wayne Fontes, ''is we played our players and no one got hurt.''

The Bengals were not nearly so lucky. Rookie Deland McCullough, late of Miami University, finished the preseason as the Bengals' leading rusher and their saddest story. Three minutes from the final gun, McCullough caught a short pass and a helmet in his right knee in rapid succession. The early diagnosis was devastating: a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and possibly a torn medial collateral ligament.

''Seeing injuries like that just leaves a bad taste in your mouth,'' said Bengals coach Dave Shula. ''This kid has busted his tail on every snap . . . He hasn't only earned my respect, but everybody's respect.''

There has been some sentiment at Spinney Field that McCullough deserved significant playing time backfield based on his preseason performance. His place vis-a-vis Ki-Jana Carter has made for one of the more intriguing debates within the organization this month.

Carter did not play Friday night as a precaution for his tender ankle. Neither did Detroit's brilliant Barry Sanders demonstrate his cutback skills against the Bengals. No use risking a big-money player in a full-contact dress rehearsal this close to the season opener.

''The most important thing,'' said former Bengal Solomon Wilcots, ''is to come out unscathed.''

Strategically, this makes perfect sense. Too many teams have had their seasons ruined by critical injuries in games that didn't count. The 1978 Bengals started 0-8 after quarterback Ken Anderson broke his hand in the last preseason game. When Carter tore his left knee last August against the Lions, it may have cost the Bengals a position in the playoffs.

Trim preseason to 2 games

Trouble is, season-ticket holders are forced to pay regular-season rates for these exhibition skirmishes, and they deserve more for their money. If the owners aren't going to discount exhibition games - and they aren't - they should seek ways to make the product more palatable.

The most sensible way to achieve this is to trim the standard preseason schedule from four games to two, and expand the regular season from 16 games to 18. That way, the owners still get to open their gates 10 times a year, the networks get more chances to sell commercials, and the players get a bigger pie to plunder.

That way, if a player was injured at the end of August, he could at least console himself that he had been sidelined with something at stake. The strongest impression of Friday night was that a promising player had been hurt in a meaningless game.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Aug. 24, 1996.