Doing a 180 in 280 days

10-4-03, 1:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals go back to that dreadful little locker room in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday 180 degrees from where they were 280 days before.

Moments after a 27-9 loss to the Bills sealed their worst record in franchise history at 2-14 back on Dec. 29, the post-game scene portrayed a team in anarchy.

Lorenzo Neal and Corey Dillon snickered about showing up at training camp. Takeo Spikes had a lovefest with the Buffalo fans and media as free agency beckoned and Spikes telegraphed his farewell address to Bengals management with 16 tackles and some hard-hitting comments. Jon Kitna was asked more about his incentives package than his third-down package.

Then they get on a plane and flew into an offseason fraught with the unknown.

Now they're back, and things aren't perfect at 1-3. But they are just a game out in the AFC North. After right tackle Willie Anderson hosted an offense dinner last Friday night, the plan for this past Friday was a team-wide afternoon bowling party. The national media no longer uses them to set up one-liners. No one has been heard to snicker about a future in Cincinnati that includes head coach Marvin Lewis. Peace is at hand and they think prosperity is just around the corner.

Any similarities between that bunch that rolled out of Buffalo 280 days ago and the team that Lewis brings into Buffalo this Sunday is not purely coincidental. It's accidental.

"We're more organized, more focused, more detailed," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "Marvin has us goal-oriented. He talks about it every day and that helps us keep the focus."

Maybe the most disturbing thing about that last game was how the players acted on the sidelines in

the fourth quarter as Kitna closed in on a $1.6 million bonus that would come with him taking 80 percent of the season's snaps. They wanted him to call timeouts, go no-huddle, anything to get the money and take a gouge out of management. He ended up a few plays short, but the front office ended up giving the bonus to him anyway in a move that began the healing process.

"That really bummed me out about that game," Kitna recalled this week. "(Many) guys were totally unfocused and just worried about getting into the offseason. All they seemed to care about was my situation. I was disappointed because I thought we were in about eight or nine games that could have gone either way last year and we didn't play like that in that last game."

Lewis has been the difference, but as Kitna said, "He's got the full backing of management and that's great.

"It's not where we want it to be, but the feeling has changed. Guys feel like they have hope now. We had some guys last year who had hope, who thought one play could turn a season around. But the majority of guys didn't believe we could win.

"The confidence is the major thing," Kitna said. We're as confident in all three phases more than at any time in the time I've been here. You don't have to be the lone soldier trying to do it the right way. And you know if you don't do it the right way, they'll get rid of you and replace you, and that comes from the top down."

It keeps happening. Even after the team's first victory this past week, Lewis cut a player (fullback Chris Edmonds) so he could sign a back-up player he has wanted for a long time in running back Kenny Watson. And on Sunday, he benched right guard Matt O'Dwyer in the fourth quarter after a holding penalty and he may not see the light of day soon.

"I've said it last week after the game, and I'll say it again," Kitna said. "The next great coach in this league is going to be Marvin Lewis because he doesn't understand just Xs and Os," Kitna said. "He understands everything else that goes into."

Many argue that one of the reasons the locker room crumbled that afternoon 280 days ago was an overall lack of leadership. Lewis has attacked that problem by trying to take the burden off a few (Kitna, Anderson, Jeff Burris) and spread it by appointing different game captains each week. He tells the team each Friday morning and doesn't try to do the High School Harry stuff by making a guy a captain when he goes back home or plays his old team. Note cornerback Tory James wasn't a captain in Oakland.

"We get more guys spreading it around and growing it," Lewis said. "Maybe at some point at the end of the year, we appoint three guys, but right now it's good to spread it around.

"It's more representation of our football team," Lewis said. "Guys who are doing what the coaches are asking and giving it all for their teammates. . .We kind of put the leadership on them at the end of the week, and it gives them some importance. It kind of gives another couple of people some leadership position."

The offensive and defensive captains for this week just happen to symbolize the change that has come over the roster the past 280 days. Spikes is now in the locker room on the other side, but Lewis also went out in free agency to replace his leadership. Tight end Reggie Kelly and defensive tackle John Thornton are newly-signed free agents known as much for their character as well as solid production on playoff teams who were part of the Bengals' most expensive and earliest foray into the market.

"I think guys played hard that day. I don't think we mailed it in," said linebacker Brian Simmons. "Every year you get a new opportunity and things better be different."

Even when equipment managers Rob Recker and Jeff Brickner unpack and hang the uniforms in that little locker room Saturday night, it already is.

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