12-24-01, 4:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
With two games left in a season that went from sweet to sour during the current seven-game losing streak, Bengals President Mike Brown Monday endorsed head coach Dick LeBeau, planned on quarterback Jon Kitna's return, and said he can see light at the end of a 4-10 tunnel.
Although Brown wouldn't reveal plans with the coaching staff for next season, he believes "there is a foundation here," with the dramatic turnaround of a top 10 defense and some improvement on offense that hasn't shown up on the scoreboard.
A quick glance at Monday's NFL stats following the 16-0 loss in Baltimore shows the Bengals with the third most sacks in the league with 43, while allowing the sixth fewest with 25. The differential of plus-18 is behind three playoff teams (Green Bay 31, Chicago 23, Pittsburgh 22).
Plus, Brown looks at the combination of a 1,137-yard rusher in Corey Dillon and a defense ranked 16th in the league against the run and sees a recipe that usually means playoffs. Of the teams that have 1,000-yard rushers and run defenses in the top 17, (San Diego, Seattle, New England, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, New Orleans, San Francisco, St. Louis) only San Diego has less than seven losses and five of them have at least 10 wins.
"The fact is we have still fallen short and everyone from players, coaches, and management and fans are keenly disappointed down here," Brown said. "We are farther along than we were a year ago.
"We've played three teams over the last (four weeks) that are going to the playoffs as wild card teams," Brown said of the Buccaneers, Jets, and Ravens. "If we had a play or two in any of those games, we could have come out on top. It isn't as though we were overmatched like a year ago. We are contending and we just are falling short. We feel badly about that. I can see some light at the end of the tunnel. There's a foundation here. If we can get one or two things improved, I think we can win more games."
Brown wouldn't comment on reports that offensive line coach Paul Alexander and quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson have agreed to return next season. LeBeau said he and Brown have discussed the coaching staff and he's not aware of such a decision being made, but he would welcome the pair back.
Brown said LeBeau has heavy input on the staff and roster:
"It's very rare we disagree and when we do disagree, more often than not, by far, I will concede to him because he's the guy at the point."
The "one or two things," Brown wants improved is clearly led by a passing game in which Kitna threw his 11th, 12th and 13th interceptions of the losing streak when the Bengals were in the red zone Sunday in Baltimore. After the game, Kitna said his 20 interceptions might doom him in next year's plans.
But Brown said Monday Kitna will be back and that the Ravens' tape showed he was inches from a 400-yard passing day.
"It was not the kind of (performance) to suddenly conclude that it was not going to work," Brown said. "It was close to working. Closer than people realize.
"Obviously, we need to get the passing game up by a minimum of 50 yards per game to probably 100 more," he said. "Suddenly around here, the minute someone has a bad week, the next thing we hear is, 'I'm not wanted. I won't be back.' I would tell people they should hold their horses. This thing can look different week to week. Our plan is Jon will be back. While Jon has had some difficult times lately, in this game just played, if three passes had been caught and if he had thrown one a little better, he would have had a tremendous day. Not just good. It was that close."
Brown is being more tight-lipped about the coaches, but he thinks LeBeau, "has done well. He's done a lot of good things for us." Brown has been particularly impressed with how hard the team has played in every game and how he has kept the spirit intact.
Brown thinks Sunday's flareup between Kitna and rookie receiver Chad Johnson and receiver Peter Warrick's anger at his benching are to be expected.
"When you're around a NFL team late in the year that's losing, you will always hear a chorus of discontent," Brown said. "I do wish some of it wasn't happening, but I could point to other situations where there was a genuine symphony orchestra compared to our three-piece band. I'm going to speak up for Dick. He's done a good job."
But the Bengals have still scored just 177 points and are eight points shy of the franchise-low from last season. At his news conference Monday, LeBeau said he'd "bet you," the Bengals pass 185.