23 Skidoo for Bengals

9-18-02, 6:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals have gone from Super Bowl XXIII to LeBeau Bowl XXIII.

It wasn't Joe Willie Namath guaranteeing a win in Super Bowl III, but LeBeau's guarantee Wednesday that his Bengals will score 23 points per game raised plenty of eyebrows on a day he stuck with Gus Frerotte as his starting quarterback.

It's a bold call for a team that hasn't come within nearly a touchdown of doing that since 1997, when they scored 22 points per game with Norman Julius Esiason getting five of the starts at quarterback.

The last time they hit 23 per was the 8-8 season of 1996. They averaged 14 last year, 11.6 in 2000, 17.7 in 1999, and 16.8 in 1998. This year, they are next to last in the NFL with 13 points in two games and would have to score 56 points Sunday to average 23 for this season.

"When I give our men a goal, it's based on something. It's not pulled abstractly out of the air," LeBeau said. "And I gave them this stat—we're going to score 23 points a game, because in the last three years, that is what the average playoff team has scored per game. We are not interested in a stat that won't put us at a playoff level. We're going to score 23 a game, and it's going to happen here."

Look for wide receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson to get more snaps in Atlanta after Michael

Westbrook fought through 76 plays Sunday in his first significant playing time since breaking his left wrist on third day of training camp.

Frerotte kept his job because LeBeau liked how he moved the ball up and down the field by converting 53 percent of his third downs en route to a NFL-high 28 first downs on Sunday.

But Frerotte knows that the game came down to the first lefty pass thrown by a Bengal since Scott Mitchell got intercepted three times in Cleveland last year. Frerotte got picked in Cleveland, too, but everyone knows he's right-handed.

Especially him.

"I had one play that could have—probably did—cost us the game," Frerotte said. "That's a little hard for me to take. Nobody has to tell me that, and you guys don't have to write about it because I think about it every second of the day. I've just got to move on and get ready for the next week."

The play has symbolized the Bengals' futility through the air since Esiason left. It was also the play of a man pressing in an attempt to lead his new team to their fist touchdown of a season that was then six quarters old.

"Gus doesn't make plays like that," said Westbrook, Frerotte's old teammate in Washington. "We were all put in a position of trying to put some points on the board. We're all desperate to make a play. We're so desperate that it just all backfired."

With the coaches deciding Houshmandzadeh's pulled groin muscle was too tight to play early, and Danny Farmer out with a knee injury, Westbrook had to play nearly every snap even though he's still coming back from the wrist injury.

He had run a route to the goal line when he looked up and saw Browns defensive end Kenard Lang 40 yards away lugging back Frerotte's lefty toss the other way.

Westbrook caught him at the Bengals 10 before he got blown up by a block as Frerotte caught Lang at the Bengals 8.

"I felt comfortable for a minute and then Kenard Lang takes off and I'm at the goal line," Westbrook said. "I was so tired, I didn't even feel that block. It's a good thing it was half time, so I went in and got some oranges and felt better."

But Westbrook is still feeing his way around the offense as he makes up for lost time with the wrist injury. They kept it light for Houshmandzadeh in Wednesday's practice and Johnson got the bulk of Peter Warrick's work as Warrick sat out with a bruise. Look for Houshmandzadeh to split more time with Westbrook if he's healthier.

"Our receivers are playing all right," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "They are light years away from where they were last year. We had 28 first downs and converted more than half of our third downs and you have to be on top of your game to do that. But we failed in other areas."

He picked out three plays that illustrated it isn't one position's fault.

"On the first play we have four people open and the protection breaks down," Bratkowski said. "On the second play, we run an adjustment that (Westbrook) flashes to another adjustment that they used for his old team, and not here. On the third play, the quarterback goes through his reads, looks, and the receiver slips.

"On the fourth one," Bratkowski said, (Houshmandzadeh), because it's wet, comes out a little high on the come-back route and he scoops up a low pass, but the replay takes it away. Those plays would have been huge third-down plays in their territory. If we can fix those plays, it's a different afternoon."

But Bratkowski is making no excuses, he's just saying things are closer to coming together than last year. Then there's the obvious question, "Is Frerotte and the team paying for a quarterback derby that split up the pre-season snaps?"

"You can't do anything about that," Bratkowski said. "This is the hand that's dealt. Would it be nice if Gus was in his third year in the system? Yes. But he's not. It's not important where we are now, but where we are in four weeks, six weeks, 14 weeks."

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