Monday, November 22, 1999

Given just a chance, Bengals will . . . lose




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Brian Simmons was the last man out of the showers, and the first man to point fingers.

        He aimed them at himself.

        “The way I think is if I had made that sack, they would have been out of field-goal range,” the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker said. “I just didn't get it done. When it's your chance to make a difference, you've got to make it.”

        Simple as that. Simmons was all accountability and no alibis Sunday afternoon, a proud warrior pained by the play he might have made. Had the Bengals' best tackler been able to wrap his arms around Baltimore quarterback Tony Banks on Sunday's last play from scrimmage, Matt Stover doesn't get to try the 50-yard field goal that gave the Ravens a 34-31 victory at the final gun.

        Maybe overtime could have produced a different ending. Maybe the Bengals would have found a way to win for once. Maybe the gray '90s was about to be interrupted by some unscheduled sunshine. Maybe, however, doesn't often get it done in the NFL.

Not 1-10 by accident
        “We had seven sacks,” said Steve Foley, who had three of them. “But when you don't do the things that count when the time comes, that's the thing that tends to beat you.”

        The Bengals are not 1-10 by accident. They are one game from winless because of a pronounced shortage of talent and a baffling ability to botch big plays. When they get a chance to make a difference — which is not every week — they commit a critical penalty or drop an easy interception or miss a tackle.

        Sunday, they did all of the above, and yet nearly prevailed. They were almost good enough to afford some mistakes. For football's most futile team, this is a form of progress. Losing late is always agonizing, but it's usually better than getting overwhelmed early.

        This way, bad as things are, the Bengals can tell themselves they are getting better. At this point in this season, it's whatever gets you through the week.

        “We had some turnovers, but overcame them,” said quarterback Jeff Blake, “and that is a sign of a good team. We did all that against the No. 1 defense in the NFL, so that tells you we're coming out of that funk we're in on offense. If we can do that week in and week out, you'll see more promising things like you saw today.”

        Blake could see a glass as half full after it had been shattered into a thousand shards, but the Bengals were able to throw the ball some Sunday, and they generated a remarkable pass rush considering the vulnerability of their defensive secondary. Given the absence of right tackle Willie Anderson, and the kickoff return travails of Tremain Mack, it was possible to believe this was a team a couple of cornerbacks short of being competitive.

"Longest year' continues
        It was also possible to believe the Bengals would miss opportunity's knock if it arrived in the form of a wrecking ball against a plate glass door.

        Third quarter. Fourth down. Doug Pelfrey kicks a 35-yard field goal only to have tight end Marco Battaglia sanctioned for a false start. Forced to try again, Pelfrey's second attempt, inevitably, is deflected and falls short.

        “This is the longest year of my life,” said Pelfrey, the choir boy kicker. “Nothing comes easy. You get frustrated. If this isn't going to make me cuss, nothing will.”

        Pelfrey did not cuss. He did not cry. He stood by his dressing stall, shaking his head slowly from side to side, trying to see the patterns in prolonged suffering.

        “Everybody says this is the worst Bengal team ever,” he said. “But I think it has the most talent. We work our butts off week after week, but in the games it's a matter of guys not making plays — myself included.”

        When you have a chance to make a play, you have to make it. Sometimes, it's as simple as that.

        E-mail Tim Sullivan at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE