Monday, December 28, 1998

No reason to believe it'll get better




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[fans]
Fans hold signs saying "Mike Brown Step Down" and another that shows the Bengals' record since he took control of the team.
(Ernest Coleman photo)

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        Darrick Brilz identified the Bengals' location as Ground Zero. Presumably, the Cincinnati center meant the bad news has bottomed out and not that a nuclear device is about to be dropped on downtown.

        Presumably, it does not get much worse than this.

        The plight of the local pro football team did not improve Sunday afternoon, but at least the suffering has ceased for another season. The Bengals completed another clueless campaign on the short end of a 35-0 stomping by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, an effort mailed in so perfunctorily that it ought to be returned postage due.

        The good news is Bruce Coslet and company have gotten this game out of their system. The bad news is there's little reason to believe better football is forthcoming at Cinergy Field.

New direction needed
        The Bengals finish 1998 as a franchise in dire need of new direction. Forrest Gregg, who coached the team to its first Super Bowl, watched Sunday's game from the owner's box, fueling speculation he might be brought back in some sort of executive/figurehead capacity. But if that is the extent of Mike Brown's tinkering — if the Bengals general manager is inclined toward cosmetic change and incremental improvement — then Ground Zero could become a permanent address.

        Despite eight straight seasons without a winning record, and this year's 3-13 finish, Brown continues to insist the Bengals are only one or two players removed from contending.

        “Maybe,” a reporter observed Sunday, “if those two players are Joe Montana and Jimmy Brown.”

        “You'll have to do better than that,” a Bengals coach replied.

        There are enormous needs on both the offensive and defensive line. There is no clear quarterback. Nine players are eligible for free agency, and six of them were in the starting lineup Sunday. Even at Ground Zero, the Bengals foundation isn't firm.

        “Every successful team I've been around, they had a core of older players,” said Brilz, who played previously at Washington, San Diego and Seattle. “I think that's one of the things you have to develop, and we've had a lot of turnover here.

        “There was a point in this organization where they had to send out some of the older guys who were bad apples. (But) They've weeded all those people out. You're starting something from Ground Zero. You've got to build somewhere. If you keep turning it over, it's going to be the same.”

Stop the revolving door
       

        There is something to be said for a certain amount of turnover on a 3-13 roster, but there is also danger in the revolving door. Dick LeBeau's zone blitz concept demands a level of understanding few players can attain in their first season. Should the Bengals fail to keep veterans like defensive end Clyde Simmons, strong safety Sam Shade and cornerback Ashley Ambrose, they may be doomed to play remedial defense indefinitely.

Ground Zero can be a starting point, or it can be a bottomless pit. Carl Pickens, the cranky wide receiver, has made plain his preference to flee. But oddly enough, several players who might go elsewhere sound inclined to stay. Clyde Simmons echoed Brown's assertion that one or two players could cause profound change.

        “You've got some guys who want to be here and you've got some who want to see change,” Sam Shade said Sunday. “And you've got a lot of guys who just want out, but not as many as you guys (reporters) think.”

        Deep down, most players are optimists. Many are delusional.

        “This team hasn't come anywhere near its potential,” said Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins. “People think I'm crazy when I say that, but we're going to win a championship while I'm here.”

        Disclaimer: Hawkins is a rookie.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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