Bengals pause in search while shuffling special teams

1-5-02, 6:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals completed what is believed to be their first round of head-coaching interviews Sunday during a discussion with running backs coach Jim Anderson, dean of their own staff that looks to be in its biggest transition since Forest Gregg became head coach in 1980.

The Bengals have now gone through five interviews, but don't appear to have set a timetable. That was jumbled with Pittsburgh's stunning win over Cleveland in Sunday's wild-card playoff game.

All but one of the candidates, Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, is available to be hired and to interview the current staff before heading to the Senior Bowl a week from Sunday. That is thought to be the best-case scenario for timing, but the Bengals can't hire Mularkey until the Steelers are eliminated, so the process is, as they say, fluid.

The list, in order of interviews: Redskins defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, current defensive coordinator Mark Duffner, former Jacksonville head coach Tom Coughlin, Mularkey, and Anderson.

"We're pausing right now to collect our thoughts," said Bengals President Mike Brown Sunday after conducting his third interview in three days.

One current assistant coach who apparently won't be interviewed is special teams coach Al Roberts. Roberts, who has been the special teams coach for six seasons, has been told he won't return next year.

Anderson, 54, now looks to be one guy who will return to the coaching staff. Brown said he offered a strong interview Sunday, which

didn't surprise Brown because he said the other four candidates have expressed interest in keeping Anderson on their staff if hired.

"Jim is highly regarded around here and the league," Brown said. "We know him well and he showed today why he is highly thought of."

The Bengals, who had never interviewed a minority for the top job, began and ended the process by interviewing African-Americans. Lewis became the first candidate to meet the Brown family this past Tuesday and Anderson was the fifth when he brought in his resume of four Pro Bowlers and 11 1,000-yard seasons compiled during his 19 seasons in Cincinnati.

But Brown said it wasn't the first time the club had considered hiring Anderson as head coach. He wouldn't be specific, but Brown said it once came down to a two-man race with Anderson in the mix.

"Mike and I have talked about it before," Anderson said. "It's about managing people in this league and I think I've showed I can do that down through the years. I think there's a reason that all the experiences I've gained has put me in this spot."

Anderson interviewed for the head coaching job at Stanford at the end of last season and for Bears' offensive coordinator's job three years ago. When he got the call to interview here for the top job, he wasn't thinking about the NFL's new guidelines that require a team to at least consider a minority candidate for the head coaching job.

"If I felt that was the reason I was interviewed, I probably wouldn't have taken it," Anderson said. "But I certainly felt like it was legitimate. I think (the guideline) is a good thing if it gives people an opportunity. The most important thing is making the most when you're given that opportunity. Coaches my age have gone through that."

The consensus is that Anderson and Duffner aren't touchable to hire for the top job because they are associated with the tired past.

"I don't think so if it's the right man and I think I'm the right man," Anderson said. "From what I can see, only one (of the candidates) is in the playoffs. Just because things haven't gone well lately, doesn't mean you haven't had success, or aren't a good coach."

Anderson said if he isn't named the head coach, he would still consider returning to the Bengals for his 20th season if the new coach wanted him.

Roberts, who turns 59 Monday, has taken heat for some tumultuous seasons on special teams, including this one, in which the Bengals suffered three punt returns, a kick return, and a blocked punt for touchdowns.

But Roberts also had bright moments, coaching Tremain Mack's 1999 Pro Bowl kick return season and overseeing kicker Neil Rackers' come-back season this year. Some observers have blamed some of the problems on special teams with the Bengals' penchant for building a roster based on offense and defense, and then special teams as the last priority. The Bengals gave up two of the punt returns for touchdowns when rookie Travis Dorsch, drafted as a kicker, made his NFL debut as a punter on Dec. 8 in Carolina.

Roberts defused rumors of his retirement this past season when he said he planned to continue coaching no matter his status in Cincinnati.

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