Coaching by title

12-12-02, 5:50 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With general manager, head coach, and offensive coordinator Tom Coughlin bringing his Jaguars to town Sunday, now is as good as time as any to ask if that's the way the Bengals should go.

One of the criticisms from inside and outside the Bengals' locker room is that there is no sense of urgency because players lack fear of the coaching staff. The final say in whether they lose their jobs or paychecks lies with Bengals President Mike Brown, so high draft picks, high salaries, high cap numbers are sacred cows, the argument goes, and that means you have to hand over the personnel keys to the head coach.

"You're going to be the guy that they must please, without a doubt," said Coughlin, when asked about the fear factor. "So from that standpoint, yes."

But like everything else in the NFL, it's not that cut and dried. For one thing, Bengals head coaches always have had pretty wide berth in personnel matters. Earlier in the season, "Sports Illustrated," actually ranked head coach Dick LeBeau as the coach with the 20th most power in the NFL

Plus, the omnipotent coach isn't a lock for success, either. Less than half the league has a setup that

gives the coach the final say and Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna had a close-up view of one of the bigger disappointments when Seattle chieftain Mike Holmgren dispatched him to free agency last year.

"Holmgren didn't have (the title) in Green Bay and he won and he's got it now and isn't winning," Kitna said. "I just think everybody has to be on the same page. If he does have it, then he needs to have some accountability and have people around him to tell him he's wrong. If not, he abuses it. Guys have to know what he says matters."

Does what LeBeau says matter as much as Coughlin? Whenever there's a strange Bengal move, such as punting rookie Travis Dorsch Sunday, Brown always gets blamed.

But LeBeau sounded like he made the call that Dorsch would go in Carolina. And there's no question that LeBeau has had his way with the quarterbacks, from the courting of Gus Frerotte, to the dizzying quarterback derby, to the starting and benching of Frerotte, to sticking with Kitna and keeping Akili Smith No. 3.

Players notice things like that. They are still sensitive that they lost a game with Dorsch thrown into the fire last week.

"When you tell the team, 'just because we want to see a young guy, want to see if he can play,'" Kitna said, "that's hard to convince those other 50 guys to lay their butts on the line when you're just experimenting with things."

Brown insists he rarely tells his coaches whom to play and that he doesn't often go against the coaches on personnel calls. The day after he resigned two years ago as head coach, Bruce Coslet said, "The perception is that Mike calls all the shots and that's not true. He's involved in calling the shots and as an owner I can understand that, but he gave me tremendous support. . . For me to say I couldn't win because of (the organization's structure) is a copout."

Coughlin doesn't think the coach has to be the GM.

"It's not a necessity. Obviously many people do it different ways," Coughlin said. "When I came here, we were establishing a new franchise. The owner, Wayne Weaver, had the design which had been followed in Dallas and other places. I thought it was very important at that time that I have personnel and be in charge of personnel. I just thought that was one way to assure I had a major say in how the team was built."

If there's an example of a guy who maybe shouldn't be doing both, its Coughlin. General Manager Coughlin is currently under fire for gutting head coach Coughlin's roster because of salary cap mismanagement. Gone are six of his defensive front seven that stuffed the Bengals in last year's 14-10 win during a fourth quarter Cincinnati started drives from its 35 and 46 and the Jags 49.

"The coach should have a heavy hand in (personnel)," said Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "But I don't think it's good for any one guy to have control like that. No matter what we're talking about. Not just football. Things need to be delegated."

Fullback Lorenzo Neal has said he'd like to see more Bengals walk into meetings scared of the outcome, but he's not sure a title is going to do that. He went to the Super Bowl with a Tennessee team that does it much like the Bengals in that the duties are split with head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Floyd Reese.

"If you've got a guy who does both, it can get personal and there can be a grudge because he is the coach," Neal said. "Some coaches are good with it. Some can mange their players well and go a good job.

"I think that the head coach has to have a lot of it because he's orchestrating the symphony. But I just think players have to buy into it, who ever is in charge," Neal said. "It s no magic wand. Whoever is the person and whatever he is selling, players need to buy into it whether it's the general manger, coach, owner."

Different teams do it different ways. Coughlin had huge success right away with the expansion Jaguars in 1995, but since 2000 he has fallen on hard times and is continually getting ripped for his drafts. He hasn't drafted a Pro Bowler since 1996, a category the Bengals have him beat with Corey Dillon and Tremain Mack in 1997.

Falcons coach Dan Reeves is also a personnel guru and he's at the top this season, but his job was in jeopardy after not going anywhere following a 1998 Super Bowl run. Mike Shanahan won back-to-back Super Bowls as the all-knower in Denver, but he's .500 since John Elway left. Ironically, Mike Sherman got the power in Green Bay that Holmgren sought, but he's also surrounded by a huge football brain trust and scouting department.

There is no sure-fire structure. As Kitna said of the coach, "he doesn't necessarily have to control the whole team. If he thinks you shouldn't play, you're not going to play."

Just like Brown, Coughlin is under enough fire to have a web site call for his job. But say what they will, he has done this year what the Bengals haven't done:

Squeezed the most talent out of his roster.

True, Coughlin decimated his own roster by putting it into cap jail. But they've won five games and lost the last three by a combined five points with less talent than most of the teams in the NFL.

In many ways, the Jaguars are the anti-Bengals.

"You know, we've got a plus 11 with five wins," Coughlin said proudly of the club's turnover ratio. "If you look at that, that's what I truly believe in."

Coughlin points to having good training camps and, for the most part, they've had good starts down through the years.

"We're trying to play in such a way that we have great harmony with special teams, defense, and offense," Coughlin said. "Our punter did an outstanding job of putting us in field position for our defensive team with three in a row inside the 10 last week. We benefited from two turnovers and one should have made the difference.

"I tell our players this," Coughlin said. "If we eliminate penalties and do a great job with minimizing mental errors, we're going to put ourselves in position to win the game."

Of course, LeBeau tells his guys the same thing. And last week, while the Jags were backing up the Browns, the Bengals weren't going to beat anybody with a 1.8 punting net.

And, for their history, the Jags are 6-2 on Opening Day. The anti Bengals also came into this season 15-12 in September. Last year, both teams went 6-10, but Jacksonville did it with a turnover ratio of minus-3 compared to Cincinnati's minus-9. The Jags gave it up 10 times fewer than Cincinnati. This year, the Jags have generated 24 turnovers, the Bengals a next-to-last in the NFL 15. The turnover ratio for the teams this season is at opposite ends with the Bengals at minus-11.

But is that because the coach is the general manager?

Probably not.

"People do it different ways," Coughlin said.

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