10-15-02, 7:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
This is what happens when you're 0-6 and not 3-3.
Wide receiver Michael Westbrook has been filleted and sautéed by the national media for leaving the stadium before Sunday's 34-7 loss to the Steelers after officially going on the inactive list.
As it turns out, the Bengals don't have a policy regarding inactive players staying around for games and many have left to go home and watch it on television instead of sitting in club seats, particularly in the cold weather.
Wide receiver coach Steve Mooshagian said it was a misunderstanding, Westbrook didn't do anything out of the ordinary, and he has no problems with a player who may be unhappy about his playing time but hasn't given Mooshagian trouble.
As Bengals President Mike Brown said, "It's the first time I ever remember someone worrying if a player on the inactive list was or wasn't at the game."
But that's what happens when you're 0-6 and said player is your highest-profile free agent of the offseason with $1.5 million of a three-year, $4.5 million deal tied up in this season.
Unsure of what to do as an inactive player after 70 NFL starts, Westbrook got the word from some teammates that there is no set rule about staying, and he didn't storm out of the stadium, contrary to national reports. But he left calmly.
"Next thing I know, I supposedly stormed out of here in a furious rage," Westbrook said. "I knew on Wednesday I was going to be inactive. It was all about not knowing what do when you're inactive. That's all it was.
"I have yet to be in an argument with anybody," Westbrook said. "But I'm supposed to (be the) cancer of the
team. But what have I done to anybody but be nice to everybody on my team? When you're losing, everybody needs a bad guy. Who better to point to than the guy who came in here to be the starting receiver?"
Who better than Washington's controversial former first-rounder? Westbrook's few but celebrated flare-ups (a practice fight with Stephen Davis, a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, disappointing production for a first rounder) doesn't help him in any controversy no matter how small. To the Cincinnati media, he has been nothing but candid, polite and accessible.
Both Bengals President Mike Brown and head coach Dick LeBeau think an inactive player's place is at the game, but Westbrook's image helped get him fried for doing something that is done commonly here.
"That's the way it's been my whole career," Westbrook said
Westbrook's gripe here is that as soon as he got healthy enough to play at the top of his game two weeks ago, the Bengals took him out of the starting lineup after he made four catches for 41 yards in the first three games, of which he stated two. Now he's been benched, he says, when he can finally catch the ball with two hands after breaking the navicular bone in his left wrist on the third day of training camp.
"I understand where they're coming from," Westbrook said. "I didn't produce when I was on the field, but I'm upset not being able to get back on the field to show what I can do. I can't predict the future. I don't know. I was accused of not being able to get off the press (coverage). How many one-handed guys you know get off the press?"
Steve Zucker, Westbrook's agent, said his client has no desire to get released and said he only wants to play. If the Bengals cut him, they would absorb a relatively small $350,000 bonus on this year's salary cap.
"He thinks he can help them," Zucker said. "He thinks he's finally healthy now and that he can play the way they want him to play now that his wrist is better. He's not looking to do anything but play."
Westbrook insists when he's healthy, "I produce.. . Put on any tape."
He says his first 19 NFL catches for 16.5 yards in 1995 had him in the running for NFL Rookie of the Year before his sprained knee took him out of five games. Two weeks after breaking his other navicular bone during his break-out season of '99, he started a stretch in which his final 24 catches went for 15.7 yards and for three touchdowns of 25 yards or longer.
Brown, who has never had problems giving players second chances, won't write off Westbrook yet.
"You'd like him to have been at the game," Brown said. "That's a sign of support and involvement with the team.
"He's had a tough time," Brown said. "He thinks he can. He's a good player. He wants to show what he can do, but he doesn't get the opportunity and that bothers him. Week after week when they score 30 points and you score seven or less, you can get a little bit testy."