9-18-04, 7 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
If you don't like what goes on in the NFL, just wait, oh, about one year and 362 days.
Here are the Bengals, now the team armed with a big-play, Marino-like quarterback, heading into a game against Miami with a more feared running attack than the Dolphins.
Here is Miami's perennial top 10 defense that has lived off savvy and strength now also showing some sizzle with a little more blitzing and pressuring.
Here is Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, two years ago still an assistant coach denied the rightful shot to have his own team, coming off a Coach-of-the-Year season demanding his team not flinch in the glare so they can bury the stale old Bungles jokes in 60 minutes and get the cameras back next year.
Here is Paul Brown Stadium, once considered the Elba of the NFL, awash Sunday night in the national lights of ESPN's 28 cameras, one for almost each of the 31 active players not in stripes in the Bengals' last prime time appearance on Sept. 22, 2002.
"It doesn't make any sense to talk about that. Who here can remember it?" asks Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson of that 30-3 rim shot to the Falcons in the Georgia Dome.
Indeed, Anderson is one of only two Bengals who were here for Cincinnati's last national pro football showcase, the 41-14 Thursday Night win over the now defunct Tennessee Oilers seven years ago. That victory was quarterbacked by Boomer Esiason, now of CBS and before this season the only shred of orange and black on national TV, in a game featuring Bengals running back Corey Dillon's rookie record 246 yards.
See, wait a few years. Esiason is the voice of Monday Night radio, the Oilers are the Titans, Dillon is a Patriot, and Denver's Mike Anderson is a five-year veteran who has the rookie rushing record.
Bengals running back Rudi Johnson, who had just broken the Thomas Dale High School career rushing record a few weeks before in 1997, wants to make it a habit.
"We have to perform well, matter of fact, perform great on these nights," Johnson says, "so we can get more prime time. It doesn't stop here. We want to build on the exposure they're giving us this season."
Rudi Johnson was inactive for the blowout in Atlanta. Pro Bowl receiver Chad Johnson caught only one pass for the lone 20-yarder the Bengals had that night. But he doesn't know that.
"I don't remember much except the score," Chad Johnson says. "What is it? Something 30-3? That's all I remember."
He'll remember plenty about this one. He is delighted ESPN plans to mike the Mouth from Miami during the game, pouring high-octane Chad into his hometown.
Anderson can remember so much more. But he chooses not to.
With center Rich Braham not encouraged by how his knee has responded this week, Anderson may very well be the only man on the field who was here at Cinergy Field on Dec. 4, 1997 for the last prime time home game.
"We have to reverse that. We can't get caught up in the hype of Sunday night," Anderson says. "We have to reverse it by (realizing) to win there will be more talking about you."
What the Dolphins and Bengals are both talking about is stopping the run. The proud Miami defense got stunned for 182 rushing yards by the old Oilers last week, and a team with Junior Seau and Zach Thomas in the middle isn't going to stand for that.
"We're going to stay aggressive, that's our style," says Thomas, the Dolphins' inexhaustible middle linebacker. "If we don't stay aggressive, we're in trouble."
The Dolphins may be without injured tackle Tim Bowens, their massive run-stopper, and Patrick Surtain, their gifted Pro Bowl cornerback, not to mention the disgruntled and traded left end Adewale Ogunleye. But new left end David Bowens, a slimmed-down version of tackle Larry Chester (40 pounds lighter), and rookie cornerback Will Poole figure to keep the Miami defense elite.
It helps they are matched against a limping Bengals offensive line that could very well start Jerry Fontenot at center even though he has all of two practices with the offense.
Of course, the Bengals defense that allowed 196 yards to Curtis Martin last week and has allowed more than 200 yards rushing in three of the last five games, also is looking at a prime opportunity to get well. Dolphins Pro Bowl running back Ricky Williams retired right before training camp, the Miami offensive line has all of 53 NFL starts, two of their backs are hurt and may not play, and the healthy Lamar Gordon averaged less than three yards per carry against Tennessee.
Whatever happens, it is going to be recorded for posterity by Doug Dodson, technical manager of ESPN's Sunday night telecasts.
His credentialed crew that ranges from 160 to 200 people pitched tent in town Thursday with his 28 cameras, one skycam, and 25,000 feet of cable for what he calls one of the biggest sports shows on television.
They will all be gone by early Monday morning as the trucks begin to roll to Oakland. Yes, Dodson says, just like the circus they vanish into a tornado of plastic cups, peanut shells, and pizza boxes.
As he eased for a second behind his computer in one of his handful of trucks parked at the dock near the Bengals locker room, Dodson, who has wired pretty near every ESPN NFL game ever, reflected on a business that nearly 40 years ago had eight cameras and four tape machines at the first Super Bowl.
Talk about waiting a few years. Now, they don't even have tape machines, but about 15 computer-like devices with servers and storage to go along with the cameras.
Not only that, Dodson finds himself this week in one of the new stadiums, a thankful relief from the edifices built in the '70s and even the '80s.
"Since it's our first trip here, it's taking a little more time figuring out the logistics," Dodson says. "Where the boxes are, where the cables are installed. The new stadiums are a lot more suited for television, and this is one of them. There's just more room. Bigger camera boxes, bigger announcing booths. It's so much easier, rather than being packed into a space designed for radio."
The Goodyear blimp has one of the cameras and is poised to snap into place Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky's re-configured riverfront in the national scene. Since 1997, Riverfront Stadium has been blown to bits, the Freedom Center has appeared, and baseball and football stadiums stand as bookends.
It took a similar high-wire act to fit the skycam into place as workers tied it to four of the highest points on light towers over a three-day period.
"It's a constricted view of just the field," Dodson says. "The only time you can really see outside the stadium is through an open end zone."
The Bengals are looking up, too.
"It's about not going out there and flinching, like Marvin says," Chad Johnson says. "Show the whole world that it's not the same Bengals. They can't make fun of us anymore."