ESPN's Theismann gets another look

9-18-02, 9:40 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Joe Theismann readily admits the Bengals-Falcons game he'll help call Sunday night on ESPN isn't exactly a marquee matchup.

But he hopes the Bengals know it could be their biggest game in years.

"It's as critical a game for a team that I can think of," Theismann said this week. "It's a huge test for the players. I honest to God thought this was going to be the year they turned it around. I'm anxious to see a team that everyone has been so quick to criticize and denigrate. I think they've got the talent there."

Theismann is also anxious to see Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon and still remembers how Dillon dominated the 1997 Thursday night game against the Oilers in which he broke Jim Brown's rookie rushing record. Just five Bengals remain from that night, and 13 from the last time Theismann called a Bengals' ESPN game in September of 1998.

But the big number to him is the seven starting quarterbacks the Bengals have had since that game in Baltimore they lost, 31-24. Theismann has seen both Gus Frerotte and Jon Kitna and is puzzled why they have struggled in Cincinnati.

"The single most important thing in the NFL is consistency at quarterback,"

Theismann said. "Gus and Jon are better players than this. I mean, that left-handed throw (Frerotte's interception) on Sunday, he's been in the league too long to do that To me, what the Bengals have lacked is that consistency at that position."

ESPN has made the Bengals the butt of their weekly jokes, although Theismann said, "I don't think any team in the NFL is a joke," and he has high regard for players like Dillon and their linebackers.

"Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons are special players," Theismann said. "And I think Corey is one of the great players in the league. People just don't understand to have defenses key on you week after week like that and to still have the kind of production he has is really amazing."

But like the rest of the nation, Theismann still has questions how a team can be down for so long while other teams have emerged.

"The Ravens spent money, won a Super Bowl and had salary-cap problems," Theismann said. "The 49ers spent money, won Super Bowls and had salary-cap problems. The Cowboys spent money, won Super Bowls, and had salary-cap problems. What's the Bengals' excuse? At some point, you have to look at the money you're spending and asking yourself if you're spending it on the right people or in the right places."

**

HEATH SHOCKED:** On Tuesday, former Bengals cornerback Rodney Heath conducted a 20-minute interview about Sunday night's game and how he expected to be the fourth corner for the Falcons against his old teammates. Ten minutes later, the story was off. The Falcons had cut him in favor of former Saint Kevin Mathis, and Heath had just gone through his third team in 16 days.

"Crazy," Heath said. "I played a

little bit last week and it sounded like I was going to get even more snaps this week. Of course. I had been looking forward to playing against my boys, but I was just happy to be working no matter who we played. Now it's that waiting game again."

The Falcons never did really get around to asking Heath about any Bengal specifics. The guys in the secondary did quiz him about how hard Corey Dillon ran, and Heath told them he is as hard-charging as advertised. Heath thought he was a good fit with the Falcons because they put him in one-on-one situations in the five or so snaps he took in last Sunday's loss to the Bears.

"I've been home for about one day," said the native Cincinnatian of his travels since the Bengals cut him Sept. 1. "You just never know. I think I can still play if given the chance."

Heath isn't burning any bridges, but he is starting to get sick of getting released because he's the newest kid on the block. He signed with the Panthers the day after he was cut here, but apparently was a stop-gap until Terry Fair bounced free. Then the Falcons called when starting cornerback Ray Buchanon was suspended for four games.

Miami could still be an option because he was headed to the Dolphins for a workout when Atlanta called. How crazy is it?"

"I was in pads last week in Atlanta for the first time since I played against them for the Bengals," said Heath of the pre-season finale. "I'll go wherever, I'm just tired of taking all these physicals."

Heath, who had just moved into an apartment from a hotel, now expects to be back in Cincinnati Tuesday.

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