INDIANAPOLIS - John Copeland is stuck. He is in the first year of a five-year contract and the sixth year of an endless rebuilding effort.
He belongs to the Cincinnati Bengals, a fate which lately conjures that of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. The Bengals are Team Time Warp, a football franchise doomed to duplicate the same tired script week after woeful week.
"This," Copeland said Sunday afternoon, "is the worst I've seen."
He was standing before his dressing stall after a 39-26 loss to Indianapolis, and he was unable to restrain his smile. The affable defensive end was an All-American at Alabama, a national champion his senior year, but he has seen too many setbacks now to register much emotion at another one. Once you've lost nine in a row, Rock Bottom becomes a relative term and time becomes your ally.
"I just want to be here to turn this thing around," Copeland said. "I've been here this long. Why give it up now?"
Perhaps the most striking development in the Bengals' dressing room Sunday was how difficult it was to find anger or anguish. Words spilled out in soft, resigned sentences or in uncannily upbeat sound bites. Frustrations were as carefully modulated as the 72-degree temperature in the RCA Dome.
At least one player paused to chat up a Colts cheerleader en route to his locker. The militaristic mood that pervades so much of pro football has given way to gallows humor and a relaxed resignation. Rookie linebacker Takeo Spikes was still seething - "A lot of people say, 'I can imagine how you feel,' but you can't," he said - but the prevailing mood was more subdued than somber.
When a long pause preceded the first question at Bruce Coslet's press conference, the Cincinnati coach joked that reporters didn't have much left to say, either. (Guilty as charged.)
This Bengals' season was lost a long time ago, and it is no longer being mourned. Several players spoke Sunday of the importance of being able to look themselves in the mirror at season's end, but some of them appeared to be blocking and tackling as if self-preservation (read: free agency) was their top priority.
"I know for a fact we're playing our butts off," said Willie Anderson, the offensive tackle. "We're not quitting. We're trying to stand in there and fight. You just have to have faith."
Yet while the players professed their undying devotion to duty, one Bengals official admitted that winning might now be considered "counterproductive." It could adversely affect the club's position in the next NFL Draft (now third). The long view, sadly, is usually the Bengals' best vantage point.
"It's just going to take time and patience and hard work," Copeland said. "That's the only thing that's going to fix it. We're not going to get some super football player who can turn it around for us. We have to make it happen."
It probably isn't going to happen with the current cast of characters. Carl Pickens, the wondrous wide receiver, wants out, and none of the people throwing him the ball can count on coming back next season. Jeff Blake started his first game in a year Sunday, and helped dig a 39-12 deficit against a team that had won only twice in 13 previous games.
Blake wasn't bad, but neither was he impressive enough to start grooming all over again. The Bengals desperately need to find a quarterback the caliber of Indy's Peyton Manning. The bad news is that Manning is the Colts' 17th starting quarterback since they drafted (and failed to sign) John Elway in 1983.
"One guy could make a difference," said Ashley Ambrose, the cornerback. "We have some great talent on this team. Look at what happened to Minnesota by them picking up (rookie receiver) Randy Moss. That made a big difference, opened up their game a lot."
Hope springs eternal. Despair can be fleeting. The Bengals believe things are bound to improve because there is no alternative. "How much worse," Ambrose asked, "can it get?"
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