Bengals end worst

12-29-02, 2:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Updated: 12-29-02, 4 p.m.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. _ A season dictated by a series of blowouts in the first month of the season fittingly ended in one for the Bengals.

With all eyes on Monday, the Bengals failed to watch the Bills on Sunday and Buffalo zoomed by them into the offseason during a 27-9 rout.

It mercifully ended where it began four months ago in the pre-season opener, in the deep freeze of Upstate New York with quarterback Jon Kitna missing next year's $1.65 million incentive by six plays with two interceptions in the last three minutes and no one banking on the future of head coach Dick LeBeau.

"When I walked into this locker room, I was hoping I would wake up from being knocked out," said right tackle Willie Anderson.

LeBeau said he was looking forward to the 2003 season, but when asked if he will get that backing from management, LeBeau said, "We'll find out."

Also uncertain is the future of free-agent linebacker Takeo Spikes, the team's leading tackler and one of the defensive captains. After the game, Spikes would not answer if he wanted to return next year. But he said, "I want to win, and I want to compete, and we're not winning, and we're not competing."

The script, entitled, "How to Finish A Franchise Worst," was the same that has sentenced the Bengals to their worst record ever at 2-14 and the NFL's No. 1 draft pick:

But, by then, the defense was so spent that the Bills played keep-away in the second half as 1,300-yard running back Travis Henry, held to 2.4 yards per carry in the first half, shook loose a bit later in the game to grind out 80 yards on 30 carries.

The game, of course, was being played against the backdrop of the unknown status of the Bengals coaching staff.

LeBeau is in the last year of his contract and the bulk of his assistants don't have deals that extend past this season.

Speculation is rampant about who the Bengals next coach will be if LeBeau is terminated Monday. New NFL guidelines instruct all teams to

include minority candidates in what the league says must be "a legitimate search." It's believed the team has studied at least one African-American assistant coach in Redskins defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, a LeBeau disciple from Pittsburgh, and published reports have linked another, Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, to a possible pool, in case of a change.

If the Bengals go another way Monday, Lewis and Smith, both 44, fit the criteria of young, aggressive coaches. But the team's history has tended to side with head coaches who are grounded in offense.

The Bengals coaching staff is already in flux. Bengals wide receivers coach Steve Mooshagian, one of the coaches in the last year of his deal, plans to interview in the next 10 days for the head coaching job at Division 1-AA Sacramento State. Mooshagian, a Los Angeles-area native, said last week the lure of coaching in his home state makes the job attractive. Mooshagian, 43, has been the head coach at Fresno City College and played and coached at Fresno State.

But Mooshagian has heard nothing on the Walt Harris front. Harris, the University of Pittsburgh head coach, fits the Bengals' M.O. as a former NFL assistant. Mooshagian, Harris' former offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh, would no doubt be on a Harris staff in Cincinnati, but he hasn't heard any indication that Harris is in the mix, or if there is even a change on the way.

Mooshagian won't interview at the East-West Shrine game in the San Francisco area because the Bengals don't appear to be making plans to send coaches to scout that college all-star game next week. That could be seen as more evidence of a change on Monday, although the Bengals have been cutting down the last few years on sending coaches to that particular game.

Could one change already be on the way with defensive end Vaughn Booker on Sunday's inactive list? Radio analyst Dave Lapham reported before Sunday's game that Booker has strongly hinted to his defensive linemates that he won't be back next year. But Booker has said he wouldn't make a call on retirement immediately after the season.

Kitna's bid to get 61 snaps for his incentive was in jeopardy when he got chased out of the pocket and he tried to throw across his body, but he got picked off by Clements with 3:41 left in the game. Bengals safety Jason Perry recovered tight end Jay Riemersma's fumble with 1:48 left, but Kitna got picked off 11 seconds later when he couldn't connect on an option route over the middle to wide receiver Danny Farmer.

The Bills' second touchdown of the first half came after Kitna fumbled the ball away his at own 45 when he got flushed out of the pocket late in the first half. The defense, as it did much of the half behind strong play from Spikes and middle linebacker Brian Simmons, stuffed Henry on third down, but Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe spread out the Bengals on fourth down and wide receiver Eric Moulds beat cornerback Jeff Burris inside for a two-yard touchdown pass to make it 20-0 with 2:41 left in the first half.

The Bengals whiffed on their six third-down tries in the half and Dillon couldn't get off against the NFL's second-worst rush defense with 15 yards on seven carries at the half. Their only big play was Kitna's 50-yarder to Johnson as he finished the half nine of 18 passing for 123 yards.

Bledsoe, the NFL's ultimate pure passer, broke from the pocket for his fourth career touchdown run on a seven-yard quarterback draw to give the Bills a 13-0 lead in the first five minutes of the second quarter.

But it was tough to find fault with the Cincinnati defense, although Bledsoe had his way against a depleted secondary with 11 of 16 passing in the half for 130 yards, with at least 33 of the yards going to the three wideouts of Moulds, Peerless Price, and Josh Reed.

The Bengals had three straight three-and-outs to end the first quarter against a heavy blitz defense as Dillon could manage just eight yards on his first six carries and Kitna missed four of his first six passes.

Nick Harris got off a 26-yard punt from his own end zone and when fullback Lorenzo Neal got called for a personal foul on the kick, the Bills had a first down on the Bengals 11. But they got stoned on third down when Spikes and Simmons sandwiched Riemersma at the goal line to force quarterback Bledsoe's incompletion and Mike Hollis' ensuing 25-yard field goal

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