Wednesday, September 08, 1999

Young team will just see what happens




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Bruce Coslet is not trying to fool anyone, least of all himself. The head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals knows a suicide mission when he sees one, and he never has been the sort to resort to euphemisms.

        When he describes his team as “too young,” as he did Tuesday afternoon, it is not an off-the-cuff observation but a distress signal. Five days before the start of the regular season, Coslet conveyed all the anticipation of a condemned man contemplating the last course of his last meal.

        “It's never any good to be too this or too that,” he said. “We're too young right now. That's not good. Any time you go on the far left or far right, it's not good.”

        Coslet has done the math — his 22 starters total 99 years in the NFL — and he has to know this is a formula for unemployment. The Bengals will be breaking in a new stadium next season, with premium ticket prices and extra seats to fill. If they can't show progress, they are obliged to sell change.

        This week's changes include rookie cornerback Charles Fisher in the starting lineup and veteran regulars James Francis and Corey Sawyer on the waiver wire. Coslet's challenge is to make Mike Brown's ever-younger roster initiative work, and quickly, or he also may be looking for work.

        Some of the talk shows already are stumping for Marty Schottenheimer to replace Coslet, and the popularity of that proposal suggests the city already has written off the upcoming season as a doomed effort. Many Bengals fans seem to be experiencing mood swings that range only from rage to resignation. Brown's game plan calls for more patience, but his public is weary of waiting.

Low on confidence
        A search for sources of optimism Tuesday at Spinney Field turned up a number of testimonials to a new “attitude” — an annual assertion in Bengaldom — but not much in the way of authentic confidence.

        “If you look around this locker room right now, everyone knows there's a youth movement going on,” second-year cornerback Artrell Hawkins said. “But when you look at Takeo Spikes, Brian (Simmons), Akili (Smith), you have leaders who care and who want to win. We're just trying to change the persona, the whole aura about this place. ... I've gotten to the point that I can't sleep at night.”

        Defensive end John Copeland also notes a new urgency. He says the coaches aren't putting up with behavior they endured in previous seasons — players coming late to meetings, inattention to detail, etc.

        “Everybody's job,” Copeland said, “is in jeopardy.”

        Changing the culture of any company is a painful process. Yet when that company's record reflects a decade of unbroken misery, employees are sometimes more receptive to something new. Middle management (read: coaches) tend to be more apprehensive because they often are judged on their ability to implement changes they may have opposed.

        Even in Company Man mode, Coslet's enthusiasm for Brown's grand design is decidedly tepid.

        “It's a path we chose,” Coslet said Tuesday. “And we're going to see what happens.”

        How's that for a battle cry, Bengals fans?

Only Brown believes
        Long term, force-feeding promising prospects is probably preferable to patching holes with undermotivated veterans like Francis. Short term, the Bengals have no alternatives that would indicate an imminent rise in the standings.

        While Coslet sees progress on the offensive and defensive lines, he can expect problems in the passing game and in his unseasoned secondary. He also can expect Brown to keep pushing for more kids in the lineup.

        “If you want to say we're too young and throw up your hands, I'm not ready to do that,” Brown said, flipping a football from hand to hand during Tuesday's practice session. “It's a long season, and sometimes teams come on as the season goes along. I'm not ready to give up before the race is run.”

        Optimism is among the privileges of ownership. Justifying it is the job of the coach. The rest of us? We're going to see what happens.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

Coslet: 'We're too young'
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