BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals opened Paul Brown Stadium today before a crowd of 64,006. But the Cleveland Browns never let them get their foot in the door as they stunned Cincinnati not just by winning, 24-7, but by the margin in which they beat the Bengals in both trenches along the offensive and defensive lines.
Not only that, the Bengals lost one of their top defensive players for at least 10 weeks when middle linebacker Brian Simmons tore cartilage on the outside of his right knee late in the third quarter.
The loss was tough enough, given this was the stadium's grand opening and Cincinnati's regular-season opener of the millenium. But this was also supposed to be the unveiling of the Bengals' 21st century offense that was to erase all the woes of the 1990s on the right arm of franchise quarterback Akili Smith.
So the seven sacks allowed, the mere 41 rushing yards by Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon and the brief 26-minute time of possession was hard for a proud offense to swallow against a Cleveland defense that won two games last season while finishing dead last in NFL defense.
Smith's new era didn't get much help. One of his starting rookie wide receivers, No. 1 pick Peter Warrick, dropped a first-down pass inside the Browns' 5-yard line when the score was just 14-7. Then rookie kicker Neil Rackers got his 42-yard field goal attempt blocked on the next play.
It was such a shaky outing that veteran tight end Tony McGee beat coach Bruce Coslet to the punch in the post-game locker room and told his teammates they can't be thinking about another slow start that has killed the last four seasons.
"The only way it could have been worse," said Smith, "is if they shut us out here in my own stadium."
"It's such a heartbreaking loss. We all put so much into this game," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "The thing that is really disheartening, the thing that's really going to hurt tomorrow, is that we had 30 yards rushing at the half. Our whole thing is running the ball.
"This woke us up. We needed this loss. We didn't want it, but we needed it. I think we'll build off it."
But Coslet knows there's a huge design waiting next Sunday in Jacksonville.
"We have to regroup. It's not reinventing the wheel," Coslet said. "Now we go into Jacksonville, a place where we haven't won since (1995) and give it our best shot."
The Bengals' offensive line never gave Smith the shot that the Cincinnati defensive line gave Browns quarterback Tim Couch. Couch had time to ring up 19 of 31 pases for 259 yards and two touchdowns. The Bengal offensive line was already missing left guard Matt O'Dwyer because of an NFL suspension. Then left tackle Rod Jones got benched in favor of backup John Jackson in the second quarter with Browns defensive end Keith McKenzie on the way to the first three-sack game of his career.
"He was pinching inside more than I thought he would," said Jones of McKenzie. "That surprised me, but I thought I settled down after early in the game."
The play along the lines and Dillon's rushing numbers weren't the only differences between '99 and '00. Couch evened his 1999 Draft rivalry with Smith at 1-1 with the help of old friend Craig Yeast.
Yeast, the Bengals receiver who was Couch's main man at the University of Kentucky, returned a punt for a touchdown against the Browns last season. Today, Yeast fumbled a punt at the Bengals 16 early in the second quarter, and four plays later Couch
hit tight end Mark Campbell on a five-yard touchdown pass to give the Browns the lead for good, 14-7, with 12 minutes left in the first half.
Couch used another Cincinnati turnover Smith's second interception of the game to close out the scoring on a five-yard touchdown pass to fullback Marc Edwards with 11:47 left in the game.
"I told him he looked good, that he played well," said Smith of his post-game chat with Couch.
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Dillon, who ripped off 192 yards the last time he played the Browns, saluted Cleveland's revamped defensive front that held him to 3.4 yards per his 12 carries.
"They outplayed us. They beat us. Give them credit. There's nothing more I can say," Dillon said. "We've got to wash our hands on this."
The Bengals' rookie receivers had their hands all over this one. Ron Dugans caught the Bengals' lone touchdown, a four-yarder, which was set up by a 13-yard come-back route to Warrick.
But later in the game, Warrick had his hands on Smith's third-and-five pass on the sidelines that would have given the Bengals a first-and-goal inside the five early in the second quarter, but, "I thought the DB was going to tip it and I took my eyes off it," Warrick said.
"That's just the kind of day it was," Smith said