Coaching speculation boils

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With Dick LeBeau returning as the Bengals head coach for at least the next two seasons, the bulk of the jobs of the assistant defensive coaches could be safe.

LeBeau said Thursday he's leaning to giving his title of defensive coordinator to a position coach, but wouldn't elaborate if that guy is already here.

It figures to be linebackers coach Mark Duffner, 22 years ago the youngest defensive coordinator in the nation at the University of Cincinnati. He returned to town in 1997 to oversee the most productive position on either side of the ball for the Bengals.

But the offensive side doesn't appear to be anywhere near as settled with the struggles of franchise quarterback Akili Smith in a season the Bengals are on pace to become the 10th team to score fewer than 200 points since the advent of the 16-game season in 1978.

A frustrated Smith planned to meet with LeBeau Thursday to discuss his hopes for next year since getting benched in favor of Scott Mitchell.

Offensive coordinator Ken Anderson is a long-time favorite of the Brown family, ever since club president Mike Brown journeyed to Augustana College in 1970 to scout a kid who would become the Bengals' all-time passing leader.

But Anderson and Smith haven't clicked. And if LeBeau decides a change must be made, there is at least one interesting name out there who has succeeded in the NFL.

Norv Turner, fired as Redskins' head coach three weeks ago, could be poised to be Dave Wannstedt's coordinator in Miami if Chain Gailey leaves.

But Gailey, who is close to LeBeau after their stint together with the Steelers, is apparenly going nowhere after Vikings assistant Ray Sherman emerged Thursday as a leading candidate for the head job at the University of Georgia.

Turner is apparently not headed to San Diego, where his old head coach, Jimmy Johnson, has been consulting the owners.

Jeff Tedford's name could also get tossed into the mix if a change is made and LeBeau is as committed to Smith privately as he is publicly. Tedford is the offensive coordinator at Oregon and is the man who turned Smith from a .200-hitting minor-league catcher into a first-round NFL draft pick.

Former Bengals and Buccaneers head coach Sam Wyche, a mentor for MVP quarterbacks Joe Montana and Boomer Esiason, indicated he would have no problems reversing roles with LeBeau this time around. He has interest in getting back into coaching because his TV career has stalled because of voice problems, but he also said, "I just don't think it's going to happen. My time there is past," while expressing regard for Anderson.

LeBeau stressed: "Nothing is going to be done until Tuesday at the earliest It can't happen because I won't know until then."

"Nothing is going to be done until Tuesday at the earliest," said LeBeau of the day after Christmas. "It can't happen because I won't know until then."

Brown gave Mitchell a vote of confidence Thursday, saying he'd like to have him back and believes he could compete with Smith for the starting job.

But Brown also hinted the club could hit the free-agent market because the Bengals quarterback job, "might be more attractive," than last season because it's more wide-open.

Of course, that all depends on who is running the offense and what the scheme is.

Rookie starting receivers Peter Warrick and Danny Farmer came out Thursday in favor of keeping their position coach, Steve Mooshagian, after a tough year in which the young crop has just four touchdown catches and 16 passes of 20 yards or more.

"Steve played the position (at Fresno State) and you've got a lot of respect for a guy who went out and did it," Farmer said. "He's one of these guys who's been through everything and seen it all. I think it'd be a plus if he kept working with us."

One thing seems fairly certain on offense. Running backs coach Jim Anderson,

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who is thought to have signed a long-term deal when the Chicago Bears courted him after the 1998 season, is probably back. That should please Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon as he mulls returning to the Bengals.

LeBeau also might have a hard time not sticking with offensive line coach Paul Alexander even though Alexander came to Cincinnati with coach Bruce Coslet in 1994.

The Bengals are second in the NFL in rushing and averaging 4.7 yards per carry, second only to playoff-bound Oakland and Philadelphia.

LeBeau is known to be extremely loyal to his players, which would make it hard for him to make a move on secondary coach Ray Horton, a LeBeau player for six seasons in Cincinnati

Pass coverage has come under severe criticism the past few seasons and Horton has taken heat for two cornerbacks picked in the second round (Artrell Hawkins and Mark Roman) and a safety in the third round (Cory Hall) who have yet to emerge.

Defensive line coach Tim Krumrie was a LeBeau nose tackle for nine seasons and has also felt the heat. The pass rush has been weak with 24 sacks, 13 below the league average, and is second fewest in the NFL.

But Krumrie has also drawn high marks for playing with a banged-up line that is allowing 3.8 yards per rush, one of just nine teams in the NFL giving up less than four per carry.

On Thursday, players went to bat for their coaches. Special teams coach Al Roberts has been grilled in Cincinnati longer than ribs, but punter Daniel Pope is backing him.

"You've got two rookies here in (kicker) Neil Rackers and (long snapper) Brad St. Louis," said Pope, three punts shy of breaking Pat McInally's team-record 91 in his second NFL season and first in Cincinnati.

"It would be tough taking Al out of the mix," Pope said. "We're getting used to each other. I know it took Al and I awhile to get on the right page, but it's worked out."

Roberts also came in with Coslet in 1997. It remains to be seen if the players' choices will help in the decision like the one that got LeBeau a multi-year deal.

LeBeau insists the staff will be his call.

"I can't imagine another owner in this league being as fair to me with everything as Mike has with me," LeBeau said.

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