BY GEOFF HOBSON
All eyes are on Dick LeBeau. But it's the glint in Ken Anderson's eye that could energize the NFL's worst offense.
"He seems excited. He seems liberated," said fullback Clif Groce before Thursday's practice. "You can see it in his face, his attitude, his whole demeanor."
There are hints Anderson is already leaving his stamp after his first four days as the club's offensive boss. The Bengals quarterback of the past is trying to make life simpler for the Bengals quarterback of the future by cutting down Akili Smith's number of reads and assignments in the game plan for the stingy Miami Dolphins.
And while everyone is talking about getting running back Corey Dillon back into the offense, Anderson has a track record of doing it as a quarterback who cut his teeth on the run-dominated '70s.
The last time Anderson called plays for the Bengals, he teamed up to call them for old friend Boomer Esiason in the last five games of the 1997 season. During that stretch, Dillon carried an average of 26 times per game and the Bengals went 4-1. Since then, he's carried 26 times in a game three times and the Bengals are 7-28.
More proof Anderson may try to protect Smith by smashmouthing? LeBeau told the media earlier this week he wants to keep the score low and have a shot in the fourth quarter. LeBeau has also spent the week bucking up a shell-shocked offensive line by saying, "Four yards is a good play."
But Anderson isn't saying much as he waits to show his hand Sunday. He emphasizes his run with the 14-year Esiason can't be compared to what he'll do with Smith in the kid's eighth NFL start.
"We're going back to the things that he knows and we hope he does well," said Anderson said. "We'll see."
These are sweet-and-sour times for Anderson, the former Bengals quarterback with the Hall-of-Fame numbers and an accountant's reserve. When Bruce Coslet resigned as head coach Monday, Anderson lost one of his best friends and closest professional comrade.
But Coslet's departure also meant Anderson has a chance to emerge from his buddy's shadow as an elite playcaller in his own right. Anderson was Coslet's offensive coordinator , but the head coach had the final call. With LeBeau the first defensive coach ever to assume the Bengals' head job, the offense is suddenly Anderson's baby.
Literally, with Smith and three of five receivers who are rookies.
"He sure did a great job, we were on the same page," said Esiason of his final run before he retired. "He understood what passes I liked and when I wanted to throw them. But I was a 14-year veteran. Still, he knows how to take care of a quarterback because he thinks like one. He likes to run the ball, sure, but he also loves throwing those little passes on first down."
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No one is saying Anderson is going to be a better playcaller than Coslet. Look past the 47-77 record as a head coach, and Coslet's legacy is in the press box. As a playcaller, he took the Bengals to the Super Bowl and in the mid-1990s he revived the club's offense in the wake of the David Klingler debacle with his own quarterback (Jeff Blake) and his system.
But there could be some differences when it comes to the two golfing buddies who grew up togther on Paul Brown's Bengals.
"When you carry a double tag as a (playcaller) and head coach, it's not the same as (an offensive coordinator) who figures he has 60 minutes in a game to find a rhythm," Groce said. "The head coach is probably thinking, 'I have to win this game.' But you figure the game plan shouldn't change until the fourth quarter."
No one knows what Anderson will call. Even Anderson said Thursday he doesn't know. Will he be like Coslet, who on Opening Day dropped Smith back 50 times to throw in his fifth NFL start even though the Browns didn't lead by more than 10 points until the fourth quarter?
Smith has worked intimately with Anderson for 18 months. But ask him what kind of game Anderson will call Sunday and Smith has been saying, "Your guess is as good as mine." But he likes the idea.
"He knows what it's like to be in the heat of battle as a quarterback and that will definitely help me," Smith said. "We'll see. I think he realizes how tough it is on a young quarterback."
Apparently, Anderson wants Smith to look at his first two or so options and then unload or go. No 1-2-3-4-5 on the progressions. But Anderson doesn't think offense is a complex matter, anyway.
"It's not a big secret the way you turn things around," Anderson said. "(Former Bengals assistant coach) Bill Walsh goes out to San Francisco and is (2-14). Do you change the offense? No, you run it better and go to the Super Bowl (in two years).
"The first year (head coach) Forrest (Gregg) and (offensive coordinator) Lindy (Infante) were here, it didn't look very good," said Anderson, named the NFL MVP in Gregg's second season. "Did they change the offense? No, we ran it better."
Maybe no one is better suited to call a game in Bengaldom than Anderson. After all, who has listened to more star-studded playcallers in the huddle than him? In his 16 years as Bengals quarterback, Anderson took Xs and Os from Paul Brown's messenger guards, Walsh, Infante, Sam Wyche and even Coslet, named the club's offensive coordinator in Anderson's last year as a player.
"Kenny was very kind to me," said Esiason of the man he replaced in 1985. "He helped me. He wasn't bitter. He knew his time had come and he taught me an awful lot of football. (In '97), we just had a great rapport."
But Anderson wants to nip all talk of '97 in the bud. Yes, the plays will be coming in a few seconds faster because Anderson will signal the play directly to Smith instead of Coslet relaying his call to Anderson before it went to Smith.
"We're not going to be like we were with Boomer and do a hurry-up offense," Anderson said. "I respect Boomer and I admire him for what he did, but he never could have done a hurryup in his second year. He couldn't have handled that. My job is to give our guys a chance to play good, sound football."
Because of the communications systems and the proximity of the quarterback, Anderson is going to stay on the sidelines instead of venturing to the press box . He'll send receivers coach Steve Mooshagian and tight ends coach Frank Verducci upstairs to phone him with information.
But Anderson, 51, the only man to ever win back-to-back NFL passing titles in two decades, doesn't act like a man looking for professional redemption.
"He's given me a free hand," said Anderson of the responsibilities LeBeau has given him. "I think more than an opportunity (for him), it's an opportunity for our football team. I've been with this team in one capacity or another for 30 years and I've got a lot of pride in this franchise and we're better than we are."
On Sunday, Anderson gets first call.