Monday, October 11, 1999

First win makes it fun again

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Marco Battaglia congratulates Akili Smith after the game-winning TD.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        CLEVELAND — Corey Dillon came off the field with a bounce in his step, a lilt in his voice and a burden off his back.

        “I can go home and sleep tonight,” the Cincinnati Bengals running back announced as he danced toward the dressing room Sunday afternoon. Then he repeated himself, only louder.

        Rod Jones was barking. The big Bengal tackle couldn't resist taunting Cleveland and its canine conceit as he celebrated Sunday's 18-17 victory over the Browns.

        “It was electric,” Jones said later. “Finally, the ball fell in our court. There's a big sense of relief. For the mo ment, the weight is off our shoulders.”

        In the greater scheme of things, a last-minute conquest of an expansion team should be grounds for relief rather than rejoicing. But in the small, wobbly world of the Cincinnati Bengals, it represents deliverance from constant defeat, liberation from city-wide scorn, and an opportunity to be seen in public without eliciting sneers.

        After a three-year hiatus caused by Art Modell's dastardly move to Maryland and resulting in the replacement of creaky Cleveland Stadium, the Battle Of Ohio resumed Sunday at the Browns' plush new digs with a breathtaking, confidence-building, Bengal comeback culminating five seconds before the final gun on a touchdown pass from rookie Smith to Carl Pickens.

        If it is not yet Party Time for the Bengals, no one questioned the excellence of Sunday's outcome.

        “I can't explain how it felt,” linebacker Takeo Spikes said. “Look at the locker room. Look at the sideline. I thought we won the Super Bowl.”

A solid debut
        Smith's debut as a starting quarterback was neither a thing of beauty nor a joy forever. What it was, essentially, was a basis to believe. On his first day in charge, Smith demonstrated poise under fire and precise aim on difficult passes, then conducted a decisive touchdown drive against the clock. At the end, he made Chris Palmer's “UFO” defense look like Unwieldy, Flat-Footed Oafs.

        For a first time out, Smith was fabulous — particularly in contrast to the clunky play of Cleveland rookie Tim Couch. It may take years before we can say conclusively which team got the better quarterback on Draft Day, but the first round was a rout.

        “I know when I was a rookie, I didn't have a clue,” Dillon said. “My eyes were huge. It took me a while to adjust. He looked like he's been playing for years.”

        He looked like a guy leading the way out of a wilderness.

Resting easier
        Consequently, Bruce Coslet's job security will not be at issue this week. Nor will Mike Brown's stewardship provide much new grist for the talk shows. For a few days, at least, Bengal news will be dominated by the development of the new sheriff in town — the guy with the big gun. Emergency rooms should be bracing for an outbreak of optimism.

        “We have something to build on,” Spikes said. “We've got the train on the tracks again. It's time to put some charcoal in it and keep it moving.”

        Truth be told, the Bengals' train still has more freight than fuel — more players along for the ride than creating momentum — but solving the quarterback question will diminish other deficiencies. If Akili Smith is the real thing, some of the Bengals slackers may become more attentive, more energetic, more motivated. They may stop thinking their fate is sealed before the coin flip.

        “This gives us a sense of hope,” said Willie Anderson, the tackle. “The last three or four games, we play hard, but we can't execute. This takes a lot of pressure off. I had people tell me they had a lot of money bet on this game. Now, we can go back home.”

        When Pickens caught Smith's winning touchdown pass Sunday, Anderson sensed some of his teammates looking around to be sure no penalty flags had been thrown before allowing themselves to enjoy the moment. The Bengals have grown so accustomed to last-minute disappointment that they observe a moment of silence even in celebration.

        But they can get loud in a hurry when circumstances warrant. As linebacker Steve Foley made his way to the locker room, he crowed near the top of his lungs about the pleasures of the plane ride home. Then Corey Dillon's voice echoed along the corridor, gleefully anticipating a good night's sleep. Perchance to dream.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail at