BY GEOFF HOBSON
The players want Dick LeBeau back as the Bengals head coach next season. Make no mistake about that.
But they also sense they have to win at least some of the final four games of the season to get him back.
LeBeau seems to sense it, too. He says it was his call to bench quarterback Akili Smith in favor of Scott Mitchell. And he still hasn't seen the kid's incentive package.
And, Mitchell is probable to start.
"I'd put a whole lot of money down," said right tackle Willie Anderson Friday, "if Coach LeBeau had us from training camp that we would have won a lot more games."
Anderson, the offensive captain, and defensive captain Takeo Spikes say he has given this team what they have long sought.
A coach who commands respect and demands discipline. A coach with an attack mentality who will bench the high-priced and faint-of-heart. A coach who is all business for a locker room that has been, at times, a playpen.
Spikes thinks LeBeau is the tough-hewn guy who can rid the locker room of the just-get-a-check attitude that exists in some pockets.
But Anderson and Spikes also know they are 2-10 and Bengals President Mike Brown needs some more tangible evidence to sell the taxpayers on bringing LeBeau back.
Which would make you think Sunday's game at home against the 3-9 Cardinals is a virtual must to keep the LeBeau era breathing.
The final three games pit the Bengals in road games at Tennessee and Philadelphia, where the hosts need wins for the post-season. The final home game is against a revived Jacksonville club the Bengals haven't beaten since 1997.
"I think we've got to win and I want LeBeau back, so I hope the guys rally around me and win," Spikes said.
"It's time for a change. If Mike Brown lets LeBeau come back, lets LeBeau pick his own staff, I think there will be a change. But we have to win. I don't want some jerk coming in, or some guy who's just a toy dummy, or a guy who just doesn't know."
Anderson, who played under Dave Shula and Bruce Coslet, thinks LeBeau has done enough to keep the job by pushing Coslet's players into a more "attack," mentality.
Mitchell thinks LeBeau has done enough by simply preventing players from going in the tank and keeping them playing hard.
But Anderson also knows the way of the world.
"We could make it a lot easier if we win," Anderson said. "It would at least help the (Brown family's decision). It would sit well with the fans. So these last four games will be real huge.
"As a team, we should think about that," Anderson said. "Especially the guys who are going to be around here for awhile. We don't know who'll be here next year. The players should rally around him. Let's win for ourselves, but more importantly, let's keep him around."
Brown and LeBeau aren't saying much. LeBeau admits, "I want the job, but you and I don't know what's going to happen."
Brown is the guy who does. And he won't deny he and LeBeau need some wins. He backs LeBeau's decision to play Mitchell because, " the goal has never changed. We're trying to win and he ought to be doing anything he can to win. We need to find some success.
"There's unfairness with coaches and the way they're treated," Brown said.
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"There are good coaches who don't always have success. Look at (Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt). He was fired in Chicago because they weren't winning. Marv Levy is a candidate for the Hall of Fame because he was so successful in Buffalo after being fired in Kansas City.
"I would tend to think he was a good coach before he got to Buffalo," Brown said. "And Dick is a good coach. You either win, or you take a lot of heat."
Spikes is passionate in his belief the Bengals can win with LeBeau because he can change an attitude that upsets Spikes.
"I think there are guys who come here thinking, 'This is Cincinnati, I'm just going to chill for a couple of years and take my money,'" Spikes said. "I call it stealing.
"Once you don't have that respect from the players," Spikes said, "you won't get the full out of your players. You never will. We saw it earlier this year."
Spikes says there has been only one coach in his life other than LeBeau for whom he would stick out his neck even if he thought that coach was wrong.
"This team lacks discipline in certain areas, but it's not because of Coach LeBeau," Anderson said. "It's because he didn't have us in training camp. If he sees guys doing stuff right now, he'll put a stop to it. But if he had us for the whole year, this stuff wouldn't be be going on.
"All the joking and playing with some of the younger guys and so-called big-time players. It would be more business-like because he's a business-oriented man."
But Anderson and Spikes know what the true business of the NFL is.
"We've got to win," Spikes said. "I like LeBeau."