365-day turnaround: 'It doesn't feel like the end of the season'

12-26-03, 11:10 p.m. Updated:
12-27-03, 10:10 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Hit Rewind. Go back 365 days when the locker room was in open revolt.

The Bengals were not only losing that last weekend of 2002, they were doing it with such spectacular drama that it looked liked it was a screen test for "Playmakers."

Players whose only intention was to lounge on a golf cart during practice still got to start on Sundays. That split the team into more factions than the Green Party, so the idea of a team outing was 53-players, 53-cabs. Veterans verbally challenged Bengals President Mike Brown through the media to give enough control to a head coach that could check the wayward discipline.

Hit Fast Forward and here we are in the Marvin Lewis locker room 365 days later, the Friday before the regular-season finale against the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium, 120 minutes from the AFC North title.

On one side of the locker room, right tackle Willie Anderson is shouting out the details of another Friday lunch for the offense at Jillian's. On the other side, quarterback Jon Kitna is leading another game of "Spades," a fiery card game which always takes place in front of wide receiver Peter Warrick's locker. When the game moves, it is usualy in Kitna's row on the team plane, where Warrick sits in an adjoining row. Where those two go, the game goes. Cornerback Jeff Burris invaded this particular session from session from a few stalls down Friday, while Reggie Myles, another cornerback, got on Kitna about how huge his head is and that he needs an offensive lineman's helmet.

Myles would no doubt like to get one of those helmets, since Kitna recently gave each of his offensive linemen a plasma TV for Christmas.

Kitna has always been kind to his linemen. One year it was watches. But usually in the past, about the only thing the Bengals have given each other is lip.

No more.

Not when 35 guys who were here a year ago this week in some capacity are gone.

"Look around. When did you ever see this around here?" asked cornerback Artrell Hawkins, who hopes his 89th game with the Bengals Sunday produces his first NFL playoff game. "Guys are actually not rushing to get out of here for those drag races up (interstates) 75 and 71. Guys like staying around after practice. The place is so different. I mean, it doesn't feel like the end of the season. It doesn't feel like we're going to be done Sunday."

That means the karma is good. Hawkins usually buys Bengals' jerseys for his family about this time of year because there's always a surplus, but they're all gone this year. He goes into Koch's on Fourth Street and the Bengals' merchandise is flying off the shelves. The malls? He's seen them flat-out of anything Bengals.

"Hey," Hawkins said. "Where is that guy who wanted to sue to get the team? What ever happened to that guy? Is that guy still around who wanted to take the team away? I bet he's not going to get it now."

As he has all season, Mike Brown is saying less than even his critics these days. A Hamilton County commissioner attempted to challenge the Bengals' stadium lease with a lawsuit that claimed the club wasn't being competitive. That got thrown out of court just in time for Lewis to begin a regular season that is coming to the final day with the Bengals just one of seven AFC teams who are either in the playoffs, or have a chance.

Brown continues to silently fulfill his Jan. 14 pledge that Lewis is also the team's spokesman as well as the coach. But if the Patriots' Bill Belichick is like McGovern in 1972 and only carries Massachusetts to make Lewis a land-slide winner for Coach of the Year, does that make Mike Brown NFL Executive of the Year? Or Brown and team executive vice president Katie Blackburn Co-Execs of the Year?

"I think he's the biggest part of it," said Lewis about Brown's role in the turnaround. "It's his control. It's his vision. If he's going to get the blame, then he better get the credit."

Kitna said Friday that the guy who hasn't gotten enough credit for this turnaround season is Brown. Kitna was horrified during last season's finale in Buffalo when his teammates seemed more concerned about him reaching his 80-percent play-time incentive than anything else.

But when he fell short by decimal points and Blackburn called him in three weeks later to tell him the club was still going to give him the $1.6 million bonus, Kitna felt that helped begin the journey to this Sunday's sideline that is thinking about playoff tiebreakers instead of $1 million formulas.

"The statement they made to me when they allowed me to get the bonus is that we want to do things the right way and we want to head in a different direction," Kitna said. "To bring in Marvin and to let him run the football team, Mike really had to step out there on faith that what Marvin was telling him was going to be true. He has done some great things for our team this year, to improve the conditions that we work in, and everything that goes with it.

"From the stools to the hotels, to the planes, top to bottom, everything has changed."

The working perception in the media that Brown has completely walked off the job to indulge his bird-watching hobby while Lewis rebuilds the Bengals is fantasy. While Blackburn deals with the nuts and bolts, Brown still signs off on everything football and financial.

Brown has always asserted his so-called Wizard of Oz control over his coaches on all football matters has always been overblown and that in only rare instances does he rule against the head coach.

Certainly, Lewis' efforts to put stools in front of the lockers (yes, so card games and more mingling can take place more easily), Friday travel for West Coast games, moving players into first class on the team charter, the hiring of a nutritionist, the addition of an advance scout, would all seem to come under a head coach's discretion that had to be approved.

"Obviously, so much has been done that people said couldn't happen," Lewis said of what has come from the top, "and it has transpired."

What the locker room most wanted out of management a year ago this weekend was a strong figure in the locker room that could unify the team. Brown clearly wanted that, too, when he fired back to the players the day he relieved Dick LeBeau, "I'm not so interested in pleasing the players as I am having the players please me and the fans. And the coach we get, I hope subscribes to that philosophy. They better please him."

Those Bengals that didn't please Lewis were quickly dispatched. Thirty-five who were with the Bengals in some capacity a year ago this weekend are gone.

"I don't know if that's what it was all about," said right guard Mike Goff. "At times there was some confusion and disorganization. But you know there is never any of that now. Marvin always makes it very clear what he wants. Organization. That's what we needed and that's what we got."

Running back Brandon Bennett insists Lewis' personality has given the team its much needed unity.

"He knows that guys who love each other fight for each other and that's just not the way it was around here," said Bennett, who saw what it all meant at the team's glittering employees' Christmas party last week in one of the club lounges at the stadium.

"Everybody came," Bennett said. "In the past, when we did something off the field, maybe one or two guys came and then maybe everybody else just passed through and left. But not the other night. That was great. We're really close. Guys are spending holidays with each other, and stuff like that."

Lewis' influence has spread to Fridays. Anderson, who along with Rich Braham and Corey Dillon is the only remaining Bengal who ever played with Boomer Esiason in Cincinnati, took a page out of Esiason's book with the Friday lunch. Esiason usually just took out his linemen. Anderson wanted to get the whole offense involved.

"At the first one," said Anderson, which appears to be the Friday before the win over Baltimore, "the receivers started to sit with receivers and linemen with linemen and I said, 'No, let's split up. I bet the receivers don't know anything abut the linemen.'"

So now a guy like Chad Johnson, a 25-year-old speed receiver, can be seen jumping on the back of 33-year-old Rich Braham, the team's long-time center and oldest player. Or wide receiver Peter Warrick, the playmaker out of Florida State's stage show, locked in conversations with right guard Mike Goff, a product of Iowa's offensive line factory.

"And Richie will turn around on Chad, and punch him, just playing around," Anderson said. "They know each other from the lunches and hanging around together. I think that has really been a reason why we've been in sync. Plus we've been together for three years as an offense."

When Anderson didn't call a lunch for the Friday before the Arizona game because of the plane fight to Phoenix, the Bengals lost. Then they came home to beat Houston and Kansas City to raise their lunch record to 4-0.

"When we went San Diego the next week on Friday," Anderson said, "we met for dinner the minute we got to the hotel."

5-0. And it now should be 7-2, not to mention unbeaten at home.

Kitna thinks last year's team was close, but he admitted, "Nothing brings you closer than winning."

Anderson says it's the closest team he's ever been on in the pros. Hawkins still had a hard time getting over the difference of the past as he walked past the card game.

"Guys would be long gone by now," Hawkins said.

The locker room a year later after Mike Brown heard it? Hawkins had just spent the past two days trying to wangle some extra tickets. For the first time since the guys could remember this week, the players' ticket request had exceeded the supply.

"Mr. Brown must have done the right thing," Hawkins said. "Everything Bengals is sold out all around town and the players are having a tough time getting extra tickets, and there hasn't been one story written about who is in control of this locker room.

"He's a good businessman," Hawkins said. "He made a good business move."

After the Bengals hope they take care of business against the Browns Sunday afternoon, it seems natural they will watch the Steelers-Ravens game Sunday night. Together. Some place.

"Oh yeah," Anderson said. "We'll work on that. But we won't start working on it until we know we took care of what we have to do."

**

MATCHUPS:** The Bengals have to be disciplined about this one. With 14 players on injured reserve, the Browns simply aren't the team that made the playoffs last season or barely lost to Cincinnati by a touchdown just 91 days ago.

Cleveland just can't come up with a big play. They have four touchdown passes in the last five games, have just one run of at least 20 yards from scrimmage in the last nine games, and have turned it over 17 times in the last five games.

Translation: The Bengals can't beat themselves.

They really have to make hay against the Browns' offensive line that is starting its eighth different combination of the season as Bengals DE Justin Smith could get a call against a rookie free agent in Browns LT Enoch DeMar. The Bengals have to stop Cleveland's best offensive player on third down, where Bengals CBs Artrell Hawkins and Mark Roman try to contend with Browns WR Dennis Northcutt in the slot.

How free and easy will it be for Browns QB Tim Couch in his final audition for Browns boss Carmen Policy?

The Bengals are banged up the most where the Browns have the strength of their defense. Bengals LT Levi Jones and LG Eric Steinbach face Browns RE Kenard Lang and DT Gerard Warren. Bengals C Rich Braham faces Cleveland's best tackler in Browns MLB Andra Davis. Bengals K Shayne Graham is poised to cap off the most accurate season in club history while Browns K Brett Conway lines up for just his third game with the team.

**

SMITH VS. DEMAR:The Browns would prefer that Barry Stokes play guard, but that might not be able to happen because of more injuries on their beleaguered front and Stokes could be at tackle. They just can't protect the quarterback long enough to get a big play. They have allowed 16 sacks in the past four games, and wide receiver Quincy Morgan doesn't have time to get open downfield. Since he stunned the Bengals on a 71-yarder in the first minute back in September, he has scored two touchdowns.

HAWKINS, ROMAN VS. NORTHCUTT:** Northcutt has caught at least one third-down pass in 45 straight games, and is second in the AFC this season with 27 catches on third down, and he had a 44-yarder two weeks ago. Meanwhile, the Bengals' defense has dipped to fourth worst in the league in third-down efficiency, mainly because in the last four games foes have converted 32 of 55 tries. The hope Sunday is the Bengals can get pressure from its front four without having to blitz against Cleveland's revamped offensive line.

COUCH VS. POLICY: He wants to go downfield to show these guys he's still got No. 1 big-play potential. But he's not nimble enough to get away from the rush and favorite receiver Kevin Johnson is long gone. He's started the last two games, has converted just five of 24 third-down tries, and is getting no help from a running game that has averaged less than four yards per carry in six of the last seven games. He has said he wants to stay in Cleveland, but he may need one final fling to show the brass and there could be a fine line between playing and forcing it. **

JONES, STEINBACH VS. LANG, WARREN:** Even without injured defensive end Courtney Brown, the Browns' defensive line has been very good. Cleveland is still ranked 15th in the league in defense despite playing the AFC's top four running backs, and Jones (knee) and Steinbach (thigh) are hurting. If Steinbach doesn't play for the second straight week, former Brown Scott Rehberg gets the call at left guard.

Lang needs half a sack to reach his career high of seven, and Warren has at least a half sack in the last three games. **

BRAHAM VS. DAVIS:** The Browns thought Davis, a second-year player, should have gone to the Pro Bowl with a team-high 159 tackles, five sacks, a forced fumble, and four pass breakups. The problem is, the Browns are rotating guys all around him and haven't been able to settle upon a set stable of backers. Davis makes them tough in the red zone, where the Browns' defense is second in the NFL in allowing touchdowns just 35.6 percent of the time.

But Cleveland has trouble generating turnovers. Since gouging Arizona for four on Nov. 16, they've conjured up just four in the past five games.

GRAHAM VS. CONWAY: Graham is second in the AFC with a 91.7 field-goal percentage (22 of 24), way ahead of Doug Pelfrey's team record of 84.8 set in 1994 when he made 28 of 33 attempts. His misses have been from 54 and 48 (the one from 48 was rushed), which makes him 15-for-15 from inside 40.

Conway arrived in Cleveland Dec. 10 after Phil Dawson broke his arm for his sixth NFL stop. He hit nine of 12 field goals filling in for another injury with the Giants earlier in the season, and he has hit two of four in his two games with the Browns. He missed his only try last week against Baltimore, a 37-yarder.

**

BY THE NUMBERS:** All the numbers you need for this Sunday's regular-season finale against the Browns. Including 64,923 and 59,163. The first number is the record attendance for the win over the unbeaten Chiefs last month at Paul Brown Stadium, which may be surpassed Sunday. The second is the number the Bengals need to set an attendance record, breaking the 473,288 of 1990.

4,746 _ Days since the Bengals beat the Browns on the last day of the 1990 regular season at Riverfront Stadium on the way to their last playoffs.

155 _ Yards Bengals running back Rudi Johnson has averaged in his last four PBS games.

116 _ Yards Bengals running back Corey Dillon has averaged against the Browns in four home games.

17 _ Turnovers the Browns have committed in the last five games.

21 – Turnovers the Bengals have committed this season.

161 _ Combined catches this season by Bengals wide receivers Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick.

158 _ Combined catches by Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott in 1996, the previous record for a club duo.

20-1 _ Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna's touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio in the eight victories.

6-13 _ Kitna's touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio in the seven losses.

0 _ 100-yard games Ravens running back Jamal Lewis has against the Steelers.

0 _ Victories Ravens head coach Brian Billick has against the Steelers in Baltimore.

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