3-19-02, 6:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
ORLANDO, Fla. _ As the AFC coaches gathered for their annual media breakfast Tuesday here at the NFL meetings, Dick LeBeau of the Bengals refused to speculate on what it would take for him to return to a seat at the table next year.
It's believed he is heading into the last year of his contract, but club officials haven't confirmed it and, besides, LeBeau doesn't think it matters.
"Every year is that kind of year," said LeBeau, when asked if he has to do better than last year's 6-10 to stick around. "I don't worry about sticking around. Even to address sticking around would hint that there's a chance we won't be successful, and we will not acknowledge that. We will be successful. Since this is the first time it came up, we'll talk about this. Here's how I look at contracts.
"I know a guy last year who signed a (five-year) contract and worked one year and I know other guys on their last year who have (three-year) contracts now," said LeBeau, alluding to Marty Schottenheimer, Dick Jauron and Dan Reeves. "If you do all right, it doesn't matter what your contract is. Every year. The majority of my professional career I worked on one-year contracts It's not an issue with me. If we do well, the contract takes care of itself."
His peers in the new AFC North of Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore all peg the Bengals as a team on the verge of making the playoffs and LeBeau as a major force behind Cincinnati's return to respectability. Baltimore coach Brian Billick went as far to say, "Cincinnati is a certain sequence of players away from really being a playoff caliber team and if you're a playoff team in the next two years, you can be a Super Bowl champion. They beat all the teams in the division last year, so that tells you something about them. They can be poised to make a real run."
But Billick, LeBeau and Browns coach Butch Davis all pick the Steelers as the favorites and LeBeau said, "Sure, we've got a chance to win it, but we've got to play like we did the last two games of last year. We're headed in the right direction. We're not there yet, but we think we've got the people to get there."
LeBeau turns 65 right after the first game of the season on Sept. 9, yet Bengals President Mike Brown has reiterated age is not major factor when it comes to deciding on a coach and he has often cited the fact that his father retired from coaching the Bengals after the 1975 season at the age of 67.
Brown continues to praise LeBeau's efforts at rebuilding the Bengals from the ash heap of Sept. 24, 2000, when Bruce Coslet resigned with the Bengals at 0-3 after getting outscored 74-7. But he won't get into any do-or-die stuff, either.
LeBeau is unhappy with his 10-19 record and knows he has to do better than that to be eating another omelet here next year. But the AFC North coaches can see the Bengals taking on the personality of their coach in his 29 games. Davis observed after splitting with the Bengals in his first season in Cleveland that "Cincinnati was one of the more physical, toughest teams we played against."
After watching the Bengals beat his Steelers in overtime of the next to last game of the season by erasing a
13-point lead in the last moments of regulation, Steelers coach Bill Cowher sees the same LeBeau he hired as Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator seven years ago.
"I think they're a very focused team," Cowher said. "They're a tough team. They are good, but they got very close to winning some close games last year. They've got good young players and Dick is doing it the right way. I think it's a team to be reckoned with. They've got a lot of pieces to the puzzle in a premier runner in Corey Dillon, a corps of good receivers, and the defense is solid."
There are those in the Bengals organization who believe Billick's antics in the closing moments of Coslet's last game pushed him over the brink and he's not well liked by players and coaches in Cincinnati. But Billick went out of his way here to salute LeBeau Tuesday.
"It sounds almost demeaning when you say this is a very competitive team and I don't mean it to sound that way," Billick said. "I think this team is on the verge of maybe coming together in a very special way. Dick has such a veteran presence, you get the sense (in a game) his team is like him: 'Don't panic. We've got time and we can fight out of this.' He's the consummate guy to bring them back."
Quarterback play looks to be the key in the AFC North. Can Kordell Stewart repeat his MVP season in Pittsburgh? Can the Browns surround Tim Couch with enough weapons in Cleveland? How far will Billick go with young Chris Redman? Will the Bengals find someone other than Jon Kitna to revive what has been one of the league's worst pass offenses the past two seasons?
LeBeau reiterated Tuesday the Bengals still seek a quarterback because of the uncertainty surrounding Akili Smith's injured hamstring, but Drew Bledsoe's name has been mentioned more in published reports than out of the Bengals' mouths. LeBeau said the club is interested in free-agent Chris Chandler, a player whose toughness and accuracy he admires.
Yet cornerback appears to remain the Bengals' priority and the Bears seem to have the inside track on Chandler before the draft. Billick also mentioned Chandler as a possibility in Baltimore, but the leading contender there looks to be Randall Cunningham.
"I'll be very surprised if we don't have someone of that veteran status," said Billick, who plans to keep a close eye on Redman. "You stick with him up to a point and that point is, 'I may be hurting his career.'"
Billick and Cowher both understand the sentiment expressed by some in the Bengals' organization that Kitna in the second year of the offense is a better alternative than a free agent learning the offense in his first season with the system.
"It's a hard call to make," said Cowher, noting how Stewart came back from the depths and how Rich Gannon became a Pro Bowler in his 30s. "Sometimes, especially early on, you have to go with the people who work with them on a daily basis. Even with that, you just never know for sure.
"Who am I to sit here and say he can't play when he lit it up against us in our second game against them?" said Cowher of Kitna. "Everybody is looking for the one guy who can put them over the top. But there are so many factors. You don't have to do something every year to create the changes you need."
Billick says the Bengals are a few pieces away, but he won't say one of them is a quarterback. He calls Kitna, "a good, resourceful quarterback who can improvise and do some things. I think another year in the system might prove real fruitful to him and we'll find out how really good he is."
Billick, who lost Elvis Grbac as his quarterback through a bizarre set of personal and financial reasons, sees most of the NFL in the same position.
"How many teams are sitting here absolutely knowing their quarterback situation is set for a number of years?" Billick asked. "They may have guys on the back end, they may have guys who show signs. There are a few guys (like) Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and the rest of us are scrambling around."
The Ravens are truly scrambling because salary-cap problems forced them to jettison a major part of their record-setting defense that brought them the Super Bowl last year and Billick has all but conceded this season.
"No one likes to use the term 'rebuilding,' because it intimates that you're saying we're capitulating in the year," Billick said. "I'm just arrogant enough not to buy into that. We're re-structuring. We're not in decline. . .we're detouring a little bit."
By the way, Billick predicts Grbac will come out of retirement after spurning the Ravens' bid to re-do his deal and the Bengals' four-year, $10 million offer that would have given him more money this season that what Baltimore would have given him.
"I was (surprised). It explains a few things to me, but it did surprise me," Billick said of Grbac's call. "It was very clear to him and his representation that we offered the best opportunity for him to play both financially and in terms of the situation. There wasn't going to be any better deals out there. . . Elvis is a good man. I think you have to take him at face value and that he did it for his family. I think he'll be back at some point. I think he's compelled to do this for the very genuine reasons he said."
With re-alignment cutting division games from 10 to six, Billick sees a new dynamic.
"The importance of the division in terms of who we're playing has been minimized," Billick said. "How you view the division, it's going to take a little while to figure out. Before, it was, 'Win in the division. Who are you going after in the division?' Now, they aren't even half your games. It's going to be different."
Cowher is still stinging from the Patriots team that upset his Steelers in the AFC championship game about eight weeks ago.
"All the teams in this division have been very, very competitive against each other," Cowher said. "A team can go 5-11 and win the Super Bowl the next year as New England did. You've got to look at that and say anything can happen."