11-28-02, 12:45 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
With five weeks left in the season, Bengals President Mike Brown is offering no hints on what he plans to do with a coaching staff that has lost 17 of its last 20 games.
Brown indicated Wednesday he has made no decisions either way, but stressed again he finds firing coaches distasteful. Although he has been continually ripped for his loyalty to his coaches despite 12 straight non-playoff seasons, Brown reiterated he won't bow to public pressure.
"There is always the outcry to wring things out, to do things different," Brown said. "A lot of people think the way to do that is to fire people. I've never thought that was the only, or necessarily, the best answer. I'm not much for scapegoating just to satisfy the outcry of the moment."
But Brown wouldn't get into specifics, probably because he hasn't made up his mind.
"It's not time to get into that," he said. "We'll talk about the future when the season is over."
ZO's INTERESTING TAKE: With Corey Dillon 52 yards from becoming the fourth man in NFL history (Dickerson, Sanders, Martin) to rush for 1,000 yards in his first six seasons, don't forget his fullback. It will mark the sixth straight year Neal has blocked for a 1,000-yard running back.
But Neal doesn't know if he'll be back to make it seven next year as he stares at free agency. Dillon has already said he has to have him back and the Bengals would like him back, but they've made a few unsuccessful runs at him this season to extend his deal.
Asked if he would return depending on whether the current coaching staff stays or goes, Neal said, "It comes down to if they respect my position and reward me for what I've done."
But Neal clearly thinks there have to be changes, although he's not sure it's a coaching issue. It's more of a team culture issue with him. He'd like to see his teammates show a little more fear when they walk into a meeting room and wouldn't mind if the coaches got on the players more.
"I know we're grown men blessed with talent, but we need to get kicked in the butt every now and
again. I think other coaches need to kick other coaches in the butt. Everyone on all sides of the ball. Everyone (coaches and players) is holding each other accountable. Offense, defense, special teams. That's what it has to be. That's the missing ingredient. That and playing with emotion and playing on a consistent basis."
And Neal isn't saying it's all the coaches' fault. When he's at the stadium working out or watching film on the day off, he's looking for the guys who are talking the talk.
"Who's doing the extra work?" Neal asked. "There's a difference between commitment and participation.
"I'd like to see guys walk into meetings with their head down, scared to death at how badly they performed," Neal said. "I remember coaches in Tennessee or wherever, when you walk into the meeting and you know you didn't have a good game, you're looking down because the whole team is sitting there watching film together and pointing at you and guys whispering, saying, 'I didn't know he played that bad.' Guess what that does to you? 'Not this week, man. Not me.'"
Neal doesn't know where he's going to be in 2003, but what is known is that during his two years in Cincinnati he has become one of the locker room's most respected and influential leaders. He turns 32 two days before the season finale in Buffalo, and if age works against him, then the fact he should end the season with a team-high 144 straight games should work in his favor.
"I'm going to play this year out," Neal said, "and try to get better in the last five games."
STUNTS AND SWEEPS: Head coach Dick LeBeau gave T.J. Houshmandzadeh the eyeball test Wednesday before he decided to leave him in as the punt returner this Sunday despite game-turning fumbles in the fourth quarter the past two weeks.
"He asked me if I wanted to do it and I think he knew I would say, 'Yeah,' but I think he wanted to look in my eyes," Houshmandzadeh said. "I'm going to be better. I made up my mind I'm not going to be the cause we lose again."
Peter Warrick, who lost his job after one fumble inside the Bengals' 5, was asked about the length of the leash given Houshmandzadeh: "No comment." . . .
One of the reasons for wide receiver Chad Johnson bursting on the NFL scene with 5.5 catches and 94 yards per game in his last six outings?
The guy takes every snap in practice. First team. Second team. Scout team. And runs around like a kid at recess.
"At the beginning of the year, my wind was horrible," Johnson said. "But I've worked at it in practice by playing all the time and it helps makes the games easier. . .
Tony Stewart, the Bengals' new tight end, greeted Sean Brewer like they were old friends Wednesday and they had lunch together. It should be a familiar scene next year, when Brewer comes off injured reserve and joins the roster fray with Stewart, Matt Schobel, Chris Edmonds and Derek Smith.
Stewart, from Penn State, knows Brewer, from San Jose State, from the 2001 scouting combine. Brewer went to the Bengals in the third round and has been able to play only three games. Stewart went to Philadelphia in the fifth round and has seen action in games and on the practice squad before the Bengals picked him off the squad last week.
"I don't know what's going to happen next year," Brewer said. "It's really out of my control. I've just got to make sure my knee gets healthy."
The 6-5 Stewart climbed the ladder to make an impressive one-handed grab in his first Bengal practice Wednesday, but he's feeling his way around the offense because there are differences.
"It's like German and English," said Stewart, who should know.
His mother is German and it was his first language until he moved from Germany to the United States when he was three. He also took German at Penn State.