9-13-01, 6:55 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
For the first time in 14 years, the Bengals and the NFL won't play this weekend because of a postponement.
In 1987, it was because the players and the NFL couldn't agree and a work stoppage began. This time, the league and players agreed there was no way a slate of games could be played in a stunned nation coming to grips with war.
Many Bengals said they would like to play the full 16-game schedule and the leading option league-wide appears to be eliminating a round of playoffs and making up the games Jan. 6. The other option, according to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, is a 15-game schedule with no makeup. He indicated he'll make a call as early as Friday and no later than early next week on the matter.
"I don't know if it's fear," said Bengals guard Mike Goff. "But there is just something in the air that doesn't seem right about playing this week. I think we did the right thing by not playing."
That was the sentiment of Goff's locker room, head coach and owner Thursday after Tagliabue's decision in the wake of Tuesday's attacks on New York and Washington D.C.
"What we did was sensible, sensitive, and right. Not necessarily quick," said Tagliabue in Thursday's media conference call.
After getting word Sunday's game in Tennessee had been scrubbed as he walked off the field from Thursday morning's walk through, head coach Dick LeBeau shuffled his weekly schedule.
He ditched Thursday afternoon's practice design for the Titans, took the team out of pads, and oversaw a two-hour practice emphasizing fundamentals. The club has a light one-hour practice Friday and will be dismissed in time to attend any events and services during the national day of prayer and remembrance.
After having an off day Saturday, the day the team was to fly to Nashville, the Bengals will practice Sunday morning in preparation for the Sept. 23 game against the Super Bowl champion Ravens in Paul Brown Stadium.
Bengals tight end Marco Battaglia, a Queens native, said the NFL should send players to New York and Washington to help the cleanup during the off weekend. But he said the Bengals' schedule won't permit him to go back home for the first time since the destruction of the World Trade Center with hijacked American airliners.
LeBeau said he didn't want his players "dispersing," for the weekend for the sake of focus, which is probably why he sandwiched the off day with workouts. But he also said he wouldn't stop anyone who wanted to go help.
"It's a win-win for everybody. It's a great decision" said cornerback Tom Carter, the Bengals player representative to the NFL Players Association, of Tagliabue's decision. Carter, who was on Wednesday night's conference call with the 30 other player reps, had been riveted by the powerful testimony of the Giants' Michael Strahan and the Jets' Kevin Mawae.
"It was extremely tough on our New York players," Carter said. "Guys have houses looking right across to the towers. . . .It just didn't seem right to play a game and some of your fans are still buried in the buildings over there."
Carter said the players are leaning to playing the 16th
regular-season game and eliminating Wild Card Weekend on Jan. 5-6. That means two fewer teams from each conference would make the playoffs, but Carter said it would clear up any issues, such as competitive balance and whether or not the players get paid for the off week.
"I'd like to see everybody get a fair shot with 16 games, said tight end Tony McGee. When asked about the four teams that would lose out on a Wild Card, McGee said, "It would be tough, but there's a lot tougher things going on right now."
Or, as running back Corey Dillon said about losing two chances at the playoffs, "That's not fair. But life isn't fair, either. Somebody's going to be disappointed however it comes out. I'm in complete agreement with the decision. It would have been so hard to play. You just keep seeing it on TV and all the families affected, it's awful."
After winning their first Opening Game in four years, the Bengals aren't worried about what Carter calls "minutia," such as momentum.
"No momentum has died in this locker room," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson. "We're still expecting to beat no matter we play. You have to adjust. That's part of life."
Middle linebacker Brian Simons said, "Whether we play Sunday or not isn't going to make us a good team."
But maybe Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna summed up the feelings of the day best with: "I think we have an overinflated view of how important football is. It might be important to us, but it's not important to a lot of people around this world."
Some players are still edgy about getting on a plane or being in an open stadium with thousands of people more than 48 hours after the catastrophe. Or both.
"Nobody knows what's going on," Carter said. "It's a different kind of war. You want to get back to a regular life, but you also have to patient."
Battaglia, who has yet to hear any word about one of his friends feared lost in one of the towers, isn't crazy about flying anywhere soon. He didn't seem to be joking when he talked about finding a "(John) Madden Cruiser," named after the landlocked Fox Network analyst.
"Granted, it's a charter flight," said Battaglia of a team trip. "But who wants to be anywhere in the air right now? I want to be on solid ground."
Battaglia would also like to get back to New York to help. But he knows his wife would frown on it and LeBeau has structured the weekend so travel especially by car is discouraged.
"The whole NFL should go to Washington and New York and help people," Battaglia said. "Help pass out water, something like that. Anything. If you want to make a statement, that's the statement you should make."
LeBeau and Bengals President Mike Brown had indicated they thought playing would also be a way to heal. But they also understood the decision and backed Tagliabue.
"If you look at the league as a whole, it's clearly the right decision," Brown said. "It would have been impossible to have played in New York and Washington given the feelings of people. I don't know if it would have been possible to play elsewhere in the country for that reason and for travel reasons, too."