8-14-03, 4:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Marvin Lewis has already welcomed Striped Nation to "Our Jungle," on billboards perched across Greater Cincinnati, a symbol of what may be the city's greatest local reform campaign since Charlie Taft tossed out the bosses.
Now his players have to convince some jittery fans after a shaky pre-season opener that it's not the same old jungle strewn with fumbles and foibles when they play the Lions at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Lewis' Paul Brown Stadium debut as the ninth Bengals head coach.
"He ran a great campaign, didn't he?" asked cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "I think he won the election. He's been a great face of the team up to this point. Now it's going to be put up or shut up time for everyone. That's how it has to be. He's done his part to prepare us. Now we have to go out and produce. The fans aren't interested in lip service anymore. I'm sure they'll give him and us a little bit of leeway, but not very much."
There is bedlam and there is Bengaldom and after 12 straight non-winning seasons, there isn't much difference between the two for the fans at the first sign of adversity. Lewis has already convinced the players that things are different now.
(Like this. At one film session this week, the entire team sat together to watch some plays on offense, defense and special teams, and he called out players when they didn't do the job on tape.)
"It gives an air of accountability," said quarterback Jon Kitna.
But if the players know it's different, the fans need to be convinced on the scoreboard. Or, at the very least, with crisp, competent play from the starters, which didn't happen on offense last week against he Jets with five yards on five rushing attempts and a fumbled snap.
"It's funny to me that there's panic," Kitna said. "The Jets didn't play good either, now. They had (155 yards) of offense. (We were driving for the tying touchdown with under two minutes left) with guys who had never played in the NFL. That's what 13 years of losing will get you. That sense of panic.
"Last year, I was being booed off the field against the Saints. We were down, 7-6.. .. 7-6," Kitna said. "But that's what 13 years of losing we'll give you. We want the fans to enjoy coming to games and feel like they're seeing a quality product."
It's one of the reasons Kitna says this game is more important than last week, and that the Aug. 23 game at PBS against the Titans is a little more important than the Lions' game. They have a week under their belt. They will be used to the tempo that the Jets already had from playing a game the week before. The starters will play more, probably close to a half. Lewis and his coaches now have tape to work on the mistakes.
But, "the preseason means nothing," Kitna said. "There's a sense of panic I get from talking (with the media), that people are freaking out. There's no reason for it. Did everybody feel great last year when we go out and (beat) Buffalo and Indianapolis? We went two and freaking 14. . .What were we? 3-1. . .The preseason is the preseason for a reason. It's to you back up to game speed."
Actually, the Bengals went 2-2, but who was counting? Certainly not 30 minutes into the regular season and trailing, 20-0 to San Diego.
Plus, it's hard for offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski to get distraught over his first team after running just 12 plays against the Jets. Kitna noted the Jets shifted to an eight-man, which they didn't play against Tampa Bay, and the No. 1s were out of there by the time the adjustments took place.
"This week we'll be in there a little longer and if they want to change what they do, we'll have a chance to adjust. We never had a chance to adjust to it last week," Kitna said "We'll be just fine."
Bratkowski knows there weren't any long runs or any real clean runs by the first team. But he also didn't think there was much of a chance to establish the much-needed rhythm any running attack needs.
"We only had three series and one got cut to (three plays) because of a fumbled snap," Bratkowski said. "Any time you get your running game going, you need time to adjust and get it into gear. This week we're playing people a little longer so I would hope to get some kind of a running game. We'll keep them on the field and see if we can get a real game-like flow."
Willie Anderson, the right tackle who only played those 12 snaps, thinks the tempo of the Jets woke up the Bengals and that they now have a better idea what it will be like Saturday night.
"And I think we know we have to take advantage of the little time we're going to be in there," he said.
If it's anyone who understands the fans' concerns, its Anderson, the man with the most Bengals' games under his belt on the roster. But he also hopes the fans understand their situation.
"We owe a lot more to our fans than what happened the other day," Anderson said. "They want to see a team that is much improved and is going to win. We're headed to the playoffs and the Super Bowl, but that's not where we are right now. This is a steady process that's in motion right now. It started when we hired Marvin. Things are turning around. The process has started. It's not complete. We will get it done."
Like any victorious candidate, Lewis comes to campaign headquarters Saturday night seeking help for the job ahead. The players seem to know they are first in line.
"They couldn't have picked a better guy as far as establishing momentum heading into the season," Hawkins said. "I understand where the fans are coming from. I see how the players see it. You just have to realize the other's situation. Both of us want a winner."