Monday, December 13, 1999

Late-season run familiar, meaningless

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        John Copeland was the last one to leave, and the first one to move on.

        The Cincinnati Bengals' defensive end lingered on the soggy surface of Cinergy Field Sunday afternoon, and then trotted slowly toward the dressing room. It was an afternoon for nostalgia at the old concrete donut — the final scheduled football game on Mike Brown's precious plastic carpet — but Copeland was in no mood to reminisce. He could only look back in anguish.

        “I can't wait to leave this place,” he said. “I have nothing but bad memories of this place. I'm ready to go to a new stadium and get some new memories.”

        Sunday's 44-28 conquest of the expansion Cleveland Browns gave the Bengals claim to the last Battle of Ohio of the Millennium and what figures to be their final home game before the team takes occupancy of Paul Brown Stadium. But as much as the participants preferred to contemplate change, the strongest story line was one of sameness.

        If this franchise has a trademark, it is finishing strong after futile starts. The Bengals are unsurpassed at winning when it no longer matters, at getting things in gear once the race has been lost, at closing the barn door after the roof has collapsed.

        The pattern has repeated itself too often to be considered a coincidence: Since 1990, the Bengals are 16-61 in September and October; 36-45 thereafter. First the players disgust their patrons; then they deceive them.

        “We have had this happen before,” Copeland said. “It's something we need to talk about as a team. The only thing I can point to is we always get in a funk in the beginning of the season.”

        Winning successive games against Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Cleveland has probably saved Bruce Coslet's job, but the funk continues. If the Bengals are good enough to dominate terrible teams, it is natural to wonder why they are so often overmatched against mediocrity.

        How much of a setback are the annual training camp holdouts? How much trouble is caused by excessive turnover? How do you break the cycle of stumbling starts and irrelevant endings unless you try keeping the core of the team intact from one year to the next? How do you watch the Bengals steamroll through December and not start to wonder what might have been?

        “It's kind of disappointing to think that if we had a little more cohesiveness at the start of the season, we could be contending for a playoff spot right now,” said Willie Anderson, the offensive tackle. “Guys need to make up their minds at the beginning of the season that we want to play this way.”

        This is a familiar refrain in Bengalsland, one likely to be repeated next year if quarterback Jeff Blake is allowed to leave and the offense is entrusted to the still-raw Akili Smith. The Bengals always seem to be a work in progress rather than a finished product — constantly evolving, infrequently improving.

        “We've still got some problems on defense,” Coslet said. “They throw the long ball over our heads on a way-too-consistent basis.”

        On a drizzly December day conducive to ground control, the Browns completed 22 passes for 328 yards and three touchdowns against Coslet's pliable pass defense. So long as that kind of carnage continues, the probability of playoffs is somewhere between a pipe dream and pie in the sky.

        When Coslet spotted Ken Riley before Sunday's ceremonies, he asked the retired cornerback if he wanted to suit up. The “Rattler” declined and later marveled at the histrionics of Bengal corner Artrell Hawkins, who celebrates routine plays as if he had won the lottery.

        “Things are different now than when I played,” Riley said, taking cover beneath the stands.

        This much, however, has yet to change: The Bengals lose early and win late; they move the ball better than they play defense; they frustrate their fans almost as much in victory as in defeat; they play in a place so long neglected that the rain still leaks into the owners' box.

        “Right in front of my seat,” said John Sawyer, the Bengals vice president.

        Sunday was so dreary that few sought to dwell on more pleasant memories. The capacity crowd dispersed long before the final gun, assured of the outcome, unmoved by the finality, desirous of a warmer locale.

        Tom Gray, the only person to have seen every game in franchise history, saw nothing worth savoring. The Bengals' retiring equipment manager went about his chores detached from the day's significance. He won't be around for the move to Paul Brown Stadium, and he has no intention of becoming a spectator.

        “I hate crowds,” he said.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at


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