9-7-03, 3:05 p.m.
9-7-03, 4:10 p.m. Updated:
9-7-03, 7:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
It wasn't supposed to be like this, was it?
The opening of the Marvin Lewis Era, set against the storybook backdrop of a sun-splashed full house Sunday here at Paul Brown Stadium, wasn't supposed to end with the slipper falling off the foot.
The final was the Broncos 30, the Bengals 10, and the black pants the Bengals wore for the first time in their history Sunday took on an entirely different meaning before a booing sell-out crowd of 63,820.
"You're right. The stage was set," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "We blew an opportunity."
The Bengals were never in the most anticipated opener in years and with a local television audience also looking on, it may have been one of the most disappointing ever after Lewis' progressive offseason.
"That became a moot point today," said Lewis of his uniform surprise that he unveiled in the locker room a few hours before kickoff. "It was a new look. It just didn't help us."
What also didn't help is the four turnovers (the obligatory one for a touchdown), tentative offensive line play (the Broncos' defensive line had four sacks and three passes defensed), and shaky special teams that fumbled away a kickoff and gave Denver the ball on an average at the Broncos 40-yard line
"I'm disappointed for our fans," said Lewis, a defensive guru whose head coaching debut was ruined on Denver's 184 rushing yards. "I think everyone here was ready to jump on, with both feet. I appreciate their support. They came out and supported us today, and we're not going to disappoint them every Sunday like this. I know they are disappointed, but hang on, we'll be back.
"I was disappointed in how we played in every area. We got packed up front," Lewis said. "I think our guys are on board. I don't think we have a problem with that. I think we have turned a corner that way, but I said the other day we are going to have to sink low. We are low today."
Denver running back Clinton Portis took them to the depths by taking a page from Bengals' running back Corey Dillon with a punishing first half that yielded him 90 yards on seven yards a carry, Denver a 20-3 half-time lead, and comparisons of Cincinnati's 34-6 meltdown on Opening Day last year against San Diego.
"We were giddy, we were anxious when we came out to play," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "I don't know if that's what it was, but you have to make tackles and we didn't tackle."
Quarterback Jon Kitna had racked up Boomer-like stats in his 12 starts last season, but the poor play of the offensive line made him look more like Gus
Frerotte Sunday. Denver linebacker Ian Gold capped off the misery the first time the Bengals had the ball in the second half when he stepped in front of Kitna's desperation shovel heave intended for Dillon at the Cincinnati 12 and walked in for Denver's final touchdown less than five minutes into the second half. He didn't throw the pick left-handed like Frerotte did in Cleveland last year, but both ended up in touchdowns.
"I thought if I could get it to Corey," Kitna said, "he could have done something with it."
Denver defensive end Trevor Pryce, all over the place all day, made that play with penetration. He and his linemates hammered the Bengals' offensive line nearly every snap, and came up with the Bengals' fourth and final turnover in the middle of the fourth quarter when Pryce hit Kitna's arm to force a fumble.
As Pryce did so much damage inside and outside, up and down the line (he usually went just from the outside last year), the Bengals switched up their line at one point. They moved center Mike Goff to right guard, put Rich Braham at center, and right guard Matt O'Dwyer on the bench. O'Dwyer did come back later in the game, but the Bengals' 2.3 yards per rush on Sunday wrote the epitaph for this one.
Unlike last year, the Bengals did score a touchdown on Opening Day on a marvelous diving 41-yard catch by wide receiver Chad Johnson with about three minutes left in the game.
And, unlike last year, the Bengals insisted there was no pointing of fingers.
"Coach Lewis keeps telling us it's not going to be the same old Bengals," Goff said. "We're not."
"Is it a setback? Yeah. Is it the result what we wanted? No," Hawkins said. "But do you throw Jon Kitna away? Do you throw Artrell Hawkins away? You can't do it. There's too much riding on it. You can fight or run and I think we're going to fight. Marvin will make sure we'll fight because if we don't fight, we won't be welcome here. Marvin's a fighter and now we're fighters. We'll be all right."
They weren't all right Sunday simply because of what the Broncos did to Dillon. It summed up how badly they outplayed the Bengals.
Facing him for the first time since he lit them up for a NFL-record 278 yards three years ago, Dillon could manage just 34 yards on his first 14 carries. His longest run of eight was sliced to seven because of a holding penalty. Half of his carries went for a yard or less. He had come in averaging 7.2 yards per carry in three previous games against the Broncos, but Portis put the shoe on the other fit as the Denver offensive line dominated the Bengals in giving Portis 120 yards on 24 carries.
Kitna, who got pressure all day from a four-man front, never got anything going. He got intercepted twice and hit just 20 of 37 passes for 264 yards.
It didn't help that his right tackle, Anderson, injured his hamstring in the first quarter, left briefly, and returned to limp through until the fourth quarter.
"This is what happens in openers as you saw around the league today," Kitna said. "A lot of times in the opener, because the emotions are so high for both teams, when one of the teams gets down, sometimes it doesn't recover. Look at the scores rolling across the board (Sunday). We just have to remain focused on what our ultimate goal is. To get in position to make the playoffs."
Lewis surprised his players Sunday morning in the locker room with the pants that featured orange tiger stripes running down the sides, but the biggest surprise was how badly the Bengals played.
They not only got flattened by Portis early, but they also lost their age-old battle with special teams.
While the Bengals failed to get Dillon any room at all, Portis ripped off 90 yards on 13 carries in the first half while Dillon got strait-jacketed on 24 yards for 10 carries. Portis gave Denver a 17-3 lead with 1:13 left in the second quarter on back-to-back runs for 31 yards, the last an eight-yard walk up the middle for a touchdown with about a minute left in the half.
But the Broncos symbolized their offensive line's dominance much earlier, when they gouged the left side of the Cincinnati line on third-and-seven to give Portis nine yards on a simple dive play. He scored on the next play from two yards out to make it 10-0 with 10:54 left in the first half.
Denver coach Mike Shanahan, outfoxed by Lewis in their last two meetings, didn't let it happen again.
"We knew they would leave nickel on the field," said Portis of the Bengals' passing down defense. "We wanted to run against that nickel defense.
"We knew if we got in certain formations, we couldn't probably pick up the blitz. We didn't have enough men to pick up a blitz on a certain side as Coach Lewis was great at finding a way to blitz players. We kind of knew if we got nickel formations, that's their favorite formation to blitz out of, and we knew if they put six (defensive backs) on the field that we needed to run the ball down their throat and that's what we tried to do."
Trailing, 17-3, the Bengals tried to catch their breath and get into the locker room, but they took another blow when Brandon Bennett fumbled the kickoff at his 29 with 1:07 left, setting up Jason Elam's 27-yard field goal with 11 second left in the half.
The Bengals did get back in the game briefly even though their red-zone offense and special teams failed them again. Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer and Kitna traded interceptions, with Cincinnati getting the ball on its 47 with the exchange after linebacker Brian Simmons caught a tipped pass off the hand of defensive end Carl Powell.
Simmons left late in the half and didn't return with what he described as pulled rib cartilage.
Wide receiver Peter Warrick did the rest. He ran a reverse for 14 yards and then made a 15-yard-catch and-run down the middle to put the ball on the Denver 6. But the Bengals, who failed to score six times in the red zone in the preseason, almost did it again.
Dillon got stuffed behind the right side for no gain, and Kitna nearly fumbled away a third-down play, but tight end Matt Schobel recovered. Shayne Graham hit his first field-goal try as a Bengal from 21 yards, but rookie guard Eric Steinbach was called for a false start to nullify it. Graham hit it from 26 to make it 10-3 with 3:13 left.
But the Bengals couldn't keep it a one-touchdown game and let it get out of hand in the half's final moments. Plummer, seven of 13 passing for 72 yards in the half, hit wide-open tight end Shannon Sharpe for 23 yards on the next play from scrimmage.
After wide receiver Rod Smith eluded three tackles (cornerback Jeff Burris, lineman John Thornton, linebacker Adrian Ross) for an 11 yard gain on a screen pass, Portis did the rest. He found a gaping hole around the right outside of the Bengals' defense for 23 yards before scoring on the next play to make it 17-3 and setting up the kick-off miscue.
With Denver content to rush just four linemen and sit seven men back to take away the long pass, Kitna could manage just 7-for-13 passing for 65 yards in the first half. Six of Dillon's carries in the first half were for a yard or less.
After the first two plays of the season netted 9.5 yards for Dillon, they couldn't him the rest for a first down when he got stuffed behind the right side of the Bengals' line.
Plummer then took his first turn as Denver quarterback and wheeled the Broncos to the Cincinnati 8 on a wide-open pass to Sharpe, but a hands-to-the-face penalty pushed Denver back and set up a Bengals' stop on third-and-six from the Cincinnati 33.
Plummer threw a high pass to Sharpe, giving cornerback Tory James time to leap up from behind and volleyball spike it out of Sharpe's hands. That set up Elam's 51-yarder with 9:04 left in the first quarter for a 3-0 lead.
With their black jerseys, the Bengals opened all in black, a design that players and fans have lobbied for nearly at least a decade.
But it's not a permanent change. While Lewis and the team considers uniform changes for next season, the NFL allowed the Bengals to wear the black pants in two games this season and right now that other game looks to be the final game of the season at PBS against the Cleveland Browns.
"The all black look was something our players had expresses an interest in, and we surprised them with that today," Lewis said. "Our helmets are unique and we want to keep them as they are. As far as the rest of the uniform goes, we'll be considering various options for next season."
The Bengals introduced the striped helmet and the elements of the current uniform in 1981.
The pants weren't the only thing different when the crowd arrived at PBS. They were part of the first Opening Day sellout since the building's first regular-season game against Cleveland on Sept. 10, 2000. The crowd of 63,820 marked about 10,000 more than what showed for last year's opener on Sept. 8.
They saw the team's logo, a leaping tiger, stretched out on the field across the 40-yard lines in another new look. All the stadium gates were dressed in a jungle design, as were both club lounges where zoo animals were on display.
For the first time in years, the team stayed in a hotel the night before a home game and for the first time in recent memory, the head coach appointed game captains instead of captains for the entire season. Anderson, who has played the most games for the Bengals than any player on their roster, was Sunday's offensive captain. Middle linebacker Kevin Hardy, Lewis' most decorated free agent with a Pro Bowl and two AFC championship games under his belt, was the defensive captain. Bennett, who finished fourth in AFC kickoff returns last season, was named the captain for the special teams.
When it came to the lineup, Lewis stuck to his off-season credo that No. 1 draft pick Carson Palmer won't be rushed. In his first NFL game, the Bengals deactivated Palmer and made him the third quarterback. Shane Matthews and his 107.2 pre-season passer rating backed up Kitna.