Monday, December 27, 1999

Coslet's future still too close to call




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BALTIMORE — Bruce Coslet is pleading for continuity. His record argues for change. His boss is renowned for his patience. His public grows weary of waiting.

        The head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals can't please most of the people most of the time. No 4-11 coach could. His job, however, hinges on his ability to mollify a single man with complex criteria. That man is Mike Brown. The call is a coin flip.

        Sunday's dismal 22-0 loss to the Baltimore Ravens clearly undermines Coslet's case for continued employment, but there is no evidence to indicate it was decisive. Mike Brown is careful not to leave too many clues this time of the year, and he rarely asks for advice.

        “In this league, there are ups and downs,” Brown said as he departed the press box at PSINet Stadium. “I don't despair because of this game. But I wish we had done better.”

        After three straight victories against the dregs of pro football, the Bengals returned to bona-fide competition Sunday and reverted to their usually abysmal standards. They amassed 241 yards of total offense and gave up 140 yards in penalties and interception returns. Jeff Blake, who fancies himself Pro Bowl material, was consistently behind, below or beyond his receivers. When he wasn't getting sacked.

        “I'll start with this: Their defense is damn good,” said Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander. “But I'll finish with this: I thought our offense was getting pretty good. When you compliment the other team, you're taking a shot at yourself.”

        How much does this one game matter? Only Mike Brown knows for sure. There was no reason to expect the Bengals to play well this late in a lost season, on the road after a bye week, against a team that was still technically in the playoff picture (until later Sunday afternoon). Yet rather than convince anyone that the Bengals have rounded the bend, Sunday's showing served to substantiate the perception that this is a franchise stuck in reverse.

        “We didn't have many shining moments,” Brown said. “That's all that I can say.”

Coslet is 21-35
        Not since 1997 have the Bengals defeated a team that would finish the season with a winning record. Coslet's record since replacing Dave Shula is 21-35. In most NFL towns, a comparable coach would have been gone a long time ago. In Cincinnati, however, Coslet's future is still too close to call.

        “I don't know if we're playing for his job,” offensive tackle Rod Jones said of next Sunday's game at Jacksonville. “I would like to think his job is secure no matter what.”

        Because Mike Brown both owns and operates the Cincinnati Bengals, his decisions about coaches tend to be tricky. It's not just a matter of success or failure, but of scapegoating and fairness. If Brown fires three coaches in a decade — while retaining control of personnel matters — he looks like a hypocrite. If he keeps coaches who continue to lose, he appears asleep at the wheel.

        If he cans Coslet, can he find someone else who can produce with limited power? If he keeps Coslet, can he continue to sell him to the season-ticket holders? If he looks in the mirror, can Brown presume to blame anyone but himself for the losingest decade in NFL history?

        Coslet made some noises Sunday about making Brown's decision for him — “There's scrutiny on my part, too,” he said. “Scrutiny works both ways.” — but it was hard to believe this was anything but bluster.

        With a year remaining on a lucrative contract — and no obvious alternatives — it is hard to imagine any NFL coach vacating his job voluntarily. Neither is it in Coslet's nature to quit when he's behind.

        Ultimately, Mike Brown must decide whether Coslet is capable of leading his team out of the wilderness. Until he does, we're all just speculating.

        “I don't know what the plans are,” said Bengals tackle Jamain Stephens. “I'll be lucky to have a job next week myself.”

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

RAVENS 22, BENGALS 0
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