11-16-02, 9:10 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Remember when head coach Dick LeBeau started his term and the Bengals were 6-4 at home and had a five-game winning streak at Paul Brown Stadium?
Now they have lost seven of their last eight here, haven't won at PBS since last year, have been outscored at home this year, 106-44 as they head into Sunday's game with the Browns, and everyone around the place expects massive off-season changes.
Which is just as baffling as everything else. How could it go from good to so bad so quickly?
LeBeau remembered the home-field success. Just before this training camp, he had been rummaging around his home and found the classic Jim Borgman cartoon that for so many people sums up how good they feel about the 1988 Super Bowl season. The drawing that appeared in "The Cincinnati Enquirer," during the Bengals' unbeaten home season that year showed a huge, dangerous tiger filling up Riverfront Stadium with the simple caption of, "Next?"
LeBeau showed it to his team the first night of training camp. Players still remember and are still trying to make it happen.
"Our fans are like the tiger," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "They're ready to pounce. We have to wake that tiger up. We have to have him come growl for us instead of growling at us. Our fans get behind us when we give them something to cheer about."
PBS has almost become another
road venue. The boos don't come as fast and furious as they do on the road, but the players know they're coming at the first sign of a meltdown. If anyone knows that, it's cornerback Artrell Hawkins. He has felt the wrath of the fans like few else.
"It could be," said Hawkins when asked if the team comes out tighter at home knowing the boos are poised. "It doesn't really bother you as much on the road because you expect the boos and the negativity. But when it is your home fans it does get to you a little bit."
Still, Hawkins insists players can't be that emotionally tied into the stands if they want to play well. And, besides, he figures they aren't looking to boo.
"They don't buy tickets to come and boo us. They're coming to see us win," Hawkins said. "They're coming to see a well-played contest. They want to see us win. They're with us."
Hawkins thinks with the Browns in town that the fans will exhibit more patience than usual.
"They're not going to want to give the Browns' fan sitting next to them the satisfaction of seeing them boo their own team in their own stadium," Hawkins said. "This week, they'll give us a little more time."
Of course, as quarterback Jon Kitna indicated earlier this week, it's not exactly like they have been a juggernaut on the road, either. But they have played more competitive games away (Indianapolis, Houston, Baltimore) than at home (Tennessee). It all depends how the game goes. The first three home games were disheartening blowouts early with half-time deficits totaling 65-7.
But the Bengals think this is a different team than the one that put the home folks to sleep in September and October.
"The quarterback situation is settled with Kitna," Anderson said. "Nothing against Gus (Frerotte) because I think he's a good guy and a good quarterback, but he was put into a tough situation on a team where everything else was settled but the quarterback position.
"Plus, we didn't have a go-to-receiver then," Anderson said. "I know Chad (Johnson) doesn't like to be called that, but he has stepped up and we didn't have a guy doing that in week one, two, three or four."
Center Rich Braham remembers how defenses immediately walked up their eighth and ninth players to the line of scrimmage back in September and dared the Bengals to pass. The Browns did it in their 20-7 win in Cleveland Sept. 15, but he doesn't expect them to do it Sunday.
"Teams the last few weeks have been backing off the line because of how we're passing the ball," Braham said.
Or, as Anderson said, "Teams earlier in the year were looking at us and saying , 'We're not too sure, but they look one-sided to the run,' and they did everything to stop it."
If one thing holds true and doesn't change, it's that Corey Dillon will have a nice day at home. In three home games against the Browns, Dillon has gone for two of his top ten games, 192 yards in 1999 and 140 last year.