11-6-03, 4:55 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
There was a gag last year. A gag back in the bad old days of a 1-7 locker room without hope or direction.
"Save yourself," some Bengals would say to each other, code words for there was no more team left. "Save yourself."
That's why to be 3-5 and to still to be within striking distance of first place with a generally calm and business-like locker room exactly a year later can't be underestimated.
Yes, under the direction of Marvin Lewis, they have saved themselves.
"Guys actually have a conscience this year," said right tackle Willie Anderson Wednesday before practice. "They come in here every day enthusiastic to work. It hasn't been like that in the past.
"The big difference is that we've been in every game this year except the opener," Anderson said. "This is a better team. People can see the difference in the enthusiasm. We're playing hard. We're playing the full 60 minutes. People see it. It's far from last year where we didn't get blown out until Week (5), and didn't win until Week 8."
But there is underlying frustration that the fans and the media don't see much difference from last season's franchise-worst 2-14 team. Lewis got into trouble in his Wednesday's news conference when he said it was human nature for people to jump on and off the team's bandwagon according to that week's score.
"I understand that," said Lewis, when asked if he realizes what the 12 years of losing has done to Bengals' fans. "But when you don't have anything invested in it, then how can it be baggage for you?"
Lewis then discovered those remarks ignited a talk radio firestorm and he tried to calm the waters by calling into "The Sports Animal," and going on air with Lance McAlister to apologize and let people know he does realize Cincinnati's emotional and financial investment in the Bengals.
Lewis had been referring to players, coaches and club employees dealing with the criticism of each loss, and Anderson, who has dealt with it as long as anyone as the guy who has played more games for the Bengals than anyone else, is trying to let people know these aren't the same old Bengals..
"If you re a fan or a media guy saying that, you not being a winner, not thinking like a winner," Anderson said. "We're thinking about winning in this club. If you go out to each guy in this locker room,
they'll say the same thing. We don't care what anybody else is saying. We know at some point we were going to lose another ballgame and it was going to be 'They lost again.' But it's not going to be an every week thing. We aren't going to (lose) seven in a row. We've found a new way of thinking. We do have a sense of urgency."
Anderson acknowledges the club has problems that need fixing, particularly the running game. And, not all the numbers show the difference. But the important stats do and show they are making more big plays and giving up fewer of them and giving themselves more of a chance to win. Last year, the Bengals lost their first seven by an average of 19 points before winning in Houston, 38-3.
Now they play Houston 53 weeks later after losing their last four games by a total of 19 points and all of their games by an average of eight points.
They have five touchdown passes of at least 41 yards compared to none last year at this time on the way to scoring 39 more points (152-113) at the halfway point on nearly 300 more passing yards.
"This is a different team. It's because of Marvin and the preparation he brings to the table," said wide receiver Johnson , who has four of those catches. "Last year, when the other team scored on us, that was it. We can cone from behind now.
"I've got this routine going," Johnson said. "When our defense comes off the field, I go over and tell them, 'I got you. I'll get it back for you.' Really, the only game I didn't go out on the field and do it was this last one."
A total of 18 times this year, the Bengals have either tied games or broken ties to go ahead during games compared to doing it just twice in the first eight games last year. Last year, Johnson guaranteed a win the week before playing the expansion Texans.
"The big thing is confidence," Johnson said. "We know we can come back in a game, that we can win. I did that last year to motivate us. We don't need that now. Last year, I was mostly talk. But now, I can go to (Jon Kitna) on the sidelines and say, 'Get me the ball and I can score,' and I know I can do it. And I think the team is like that now."
. After eight games this year and last, the defense is still giving up 333 yards per game, nine yards less on the ground per game and nine more in the air per game. But this year they are plus-3 in turnovers compared to minus-5 after eight games in '02. They have given up three touchdown passes longer than 19 yards compared to six at this time last season. And the biggest stat of all, they've given up 41 fewer points (173-214).
"The big difference," said center Rich Braham, who has been here longer than anyone since 1994, "is here it is November and we're still in the hunt for the playoffs. Last year at this time, we were out, finished. But this is fun, Last year, we were done right now at this time. We were finished. Now what? We're two games out of first or something and we've got two straight at home. It's not even close to last year."
They insist the difference goes far beyond the numbers.
"There is no comparison, really," Kitna said. "Last year at this point it was pretty much done, except for the last eight games of the season for the guys in the locker room."