BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals made the first 29 minutes of the Dick LeBeau era unforgettable Sunday before a surprised sun-splashed crowd of 61,535 at Paul Brown Stadium.
But the next half hour would only be remembered by Miami as the Dolphins took advantage of 123 yards in penalties and a slew of missed tackles in ringing up 31 straight points on the way to a 31-16 victory.
After the Bengals dropped to 0-4, quarterback Akili Smith told his teammates he was sick of losing, that he's never been a loser and that he wasn't going to take solace in putting up 350 yards against one of the NFL's top defenses.
"That made me feel better when I heard Akili say that," said linebacker Takeo Spikes. "When I heard him say that, it makes me think we can save something from this season."
The Bengals' offense, ranked last in the NFL coming into the game, had more yards (350-302), more rushing yards (191-159) and more time with the ball (33:40).
But it also had one more major gaffe.
In the first game under their new coach, the Bengals melted after a devastating turnover on the final play of the first half helped Miami (4-1) turn around a 13-0 deficit quicker than you could say "false start."
"I think we fought them, but we had a very, very poor third quarter," said LeBeau of a period the Dolphins had the ball for 10 minutes and 14 points in which they converted all four third- down tries.
"We have got to understand it is a 60-minute game and play like we did in the first half all the way. . .Had we played a little bit better, I think it could have gone right down to the wire. It almost did anyhow."
The Bengals' best 29 minutes of football since they reported to training camp two months ago got destroyed in a Miami minute.
Which on this day was 56 seconds.
When Smith dropped back to pass from his 37-yard line on the last play of the half with eight seconds left, Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor beat left tackle Rod Jones. Taylor then slapped the ball from Smith before picking it up to run 29 yards for a touchdown to cut the Bengals lead to 13-10 going into the locker room.
LeBeau took the heat for passing instead of taking a knee, taking the blame for the call even though offensive coordinator Ken Anderson is in charge of the offense.
"Would I do it again, knowing what I know now?" LeBeau asked. "No, but I don't want our players to think we're not going to attack. It was one play in the game. It certainly wasn't the deciding play, but it was the kind of play that shifted it back away from us. Up until that ,we completely controlled the football game. . .I don't want our players to think we don't trust them, but we don't want them to do anything stupid, either."
Smith said, "if that's (attacking) the reason, then I love the call." Jones liked it, too, but he admitted he picked that play for the first time in the game to attack Taylor's hands on his pass rush it and it cost him. Plus, Taylor said the Dolphins had talked during the week how Smith, "holds the ball a little sloppy." . . .
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"We knew we had the ball coming out of halftime with a lot of momentum after that," said Miami quarterback Jay Fielder, who killed the Bengals with three scrambles for first downs.
The Bengals played near perfection for much of the first half, but the late mistakes cost them. After Fielder scrambled for 11 yards for a first down on third-and-nine, Bengals safety Tremain Mack gave the Dolphins 15 more yards for a late hit when he took a shot at Fiedler as he slid for the first down.
Miami turned the new life into Olindo Mare's 40-yard field goal with 56 seconds left in the half.
Fiedler, the former Bengals training camp quarterback, then strafed the Cincinnati secondary with touchdown passes against both starting cornerbacks in the second half as his struggling offense posted its best day of the season.
The Dolphins added a rushing touchdown in the third quarter when running back Lamar Smith bounced off cornerback Artrell Hawkins on the way to an 18-yard touchdown run.
The Smith run was the third third-and-eight converted by the Dolphins on that first drive of the second half, which gave Miami its first lead of the day at 17-13. One of those third-down pass completions came despite Fiedler wrestling with Bengals defensive end John Copeland. It was a microcosm of the Bengals not finishing what they started.
"We've got to get off the field on third down," LeBeau said. "When you don't, well, you saw what happened to us."
The Mack penalty and Taylor fumble set the stage for the tough third quarter for cornerback Artrell Hawkins and his defensive mates. On the second series of the quarter, Hawkins was called for pass interference at his 12-yard line after getting beat down the middle on a third-and-two play-action fake at the Bengals 46. Then after an encroachment penalty on the Bengals, Dolphins receiver Oronde Gadsden, at 6-2, 215 pounds, outjumped the 5-10, 190-pound Hawkins for a seven-yard touchdown catch.
Gadsden also beat the 6-0, 190-pound Tom Carter, the other Bengals cornerback, for Miami's last touchdown, a 21-yard pass that Carter never saw as Fiedler floated it over his shoulder in one-on-one coverage.
"He's a big target for us and we knew they had a few smaller cornerbacks and (like to) attack," Fiedler said.
LeBeau, the first defensive head coach in franchise history, watched the offense set the tone of his new era when the Bengals scored on their first three drives against the stingy Dolphins to take their first leads of the season.
Smith hit eight of his first nines passes and running back Corey Dillon ran for 71 yards in the first half after getting just 82 yards all season as the Bengals snapped their drought of 10 straight quarters without a point.
Dillon hit his two magic numbers with about four minutes left in the game. He had 22 carries for 110 yards, but the Bengals' record when Dillon has 22 attempts fell to 10-3.
"The big thing to me was that our offense proved it can run the football," LeBeau said. "If you look at the statistics, though, we did not force their field-goal kicker to kick and they forced ours to kick it and that's the bottom line."
Smith started hot, but cooled in finishing 20 of 38 passing for 178 yards.
Still, the first half was a stunning reversal for a team that had scored seven points in its first three games and was coming off the worst shutout loss in its history and the resignation of head coach Bruce Coslet.
The rookies had their say early. Bengals receiver Peter Warrick scored his first NFL touchdown when he capped the game's opening drive by plucking Smith's nine-yard pass out of the air with his right arm as he ran across the back of the end zone.
It was only the second touchdown against the 3-1 Dolphins this season and only the second one for the 0-3 Bengals,
On the next series, Smith found Warrick again on a third-and-nine as he stepped away from the pass rush for an 11-yard pickup over the middle. After three misses in his first two games, Bengals rookie kicker Neil Rackers hit his first NFL field goal, a 23-yarder that made it 10-0 with less than a minute left in the first quarter.
But the Bengals defense also snapped out of its doldrums.
Copeland sacked Fiedler to blunt Miami's first series and then recovered Lamar Smith's fumble to end Miami's second series inside the Dolphins' 30. The turnover resulted in Rackers' 38-yard field goal.
Spikes choked off a Miami drive in the red zone when he intercepted Fiedler's pass to running back J.J. Johnson in the end zone.
A week after managing just 94 yards last week, the Bengals and Anderson, their new playcaller, racked up 145 yards while keeping the ball for about 12 minutes of the first quarter.
How tough was LeBeau's charge as he headed into his debut?
There have been 56 mid-season changes in the pro game since 1960, LeBeau's second season as a cornerback for the Detroit Lions. Only 18 clubs won their first game under their new coach, with the man LeBeau replaced one of the last two men to do it.