For openers, Bengals know it's big
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, KY. _ About a year ago at this time, Akili Smith agreed with Mike Brown on a contract making him the franchise quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals well into the new century. Now they've agreed on something else:
Saturday night's first game ever at Paul Brown Stadium is no fire drill, walk through, mulligan, or exhibition.
"It's the biggest game in Bengals' history after the two Super Bowls," said Smith as he and his mates prepared to break training camp from Georgetown College Saturday morning. "It's time to wipe away all the bad stuff and start off on the right foot in the new place. We've got to let the NFL know that we're going to win at home. We've got to let other teams know that when they come into Cincinnati to play, the Bengals are going to hold serve."
Brown might not call Saturday's game the U.S. Open, but he is looking for an ace on the first night in the building named for his father and team founder. Taxpayers have paid too much (estimated stadium cost is $400 million) and the franchise has lost too much (the most in the NFL of the '90s) for Brown to need any less.
A seething Brown passed the word to his coaches last Saturday that they weren't to allow another sloppy outing like the one Friday night in Atlanta in which the Falcons scored the last 21 points of their 31-16 victory in the final 6:41.
"We want to show the people we aren't the same caliber of team that we have been for too long," Mike Brown said. "We don't want to disappoint the people who have helped us so much. We want to have a good opener. Everyone wants to win every game, whether it's preseason or regular season. But this is a special day for us."
Right tackle Willie Anderson sensed the coaches turning it up a notch this week, which turned out to be the most humid series of days during the 29-day camp. Earlier in the week, coach Bruce Coslet, who becomes the only man to be on the sidelines as a player or coach in all three Bengal venues, let everyone know this wasn't your run-of-the-mill preseason game.
Coslet drilled the final message home this afternoon, when he didn't let the players go home a night early and kept them here to watch film and meetings before heading back to Cincinnati in the morning.
"It's been a big push this week," Anderson said. "The coaches have been pushing us. It's been real physical this week. There's a lot of hot days, but we kept practicing hard. You can sense the urgency to go into this game and look good.
"There's disappointment, but you can't second-guess the boss," said Anderson of Coslet's decision to keep camp alive another night. "He wants us to focus. It's a big game, and he doesn't want any mishaps before the game. The coaches were emphasizing not to make the same mistakes we made in Atlanta."
If management is looking for the cheers, the players are looking for the clean slate. They're looking to the stadium to set a tone missing on a team that has lost their last seven preseason games and cure the hangover of losing 32 of the last 39 preseason and regular-season games. Just ask defensive captain Takeo Spikes, who has played in all those games.
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"We want to use (the stadium) to wash out all the negativity," Spikes said. "This is a new facility. We've got a practice field, everything. We want to use it as gas and let it roll."
Anderson is hoping the new building will allow his teammates to forget the bitterness of the last two seasons, when a home game was more like a civil disturbance. When the Bengals beat San Francisco and Cleveland in their last two games ever at Cinergy Field last year, they broke an 11-game losing streak at home. The players can read banners as well as the media.
"We need to defend our home turf," Anderson said. "No more of that stuff from last season, where there was all the booing and all the signs, all the negativity. If we play well, the fans won't boo."
Anderson is concerned about what happens if they lose Saturday night. During his four seasons, there have been certain games that have been targeted and when they were lost, it made for a difficult recovery. He points to last season's opener, a game Coslet stressed all offseason. When the Titans beat them by a point in the last eight seconds, the Bengals didn't compete for another month. But this, after all, doesn't even count.
"When we've lost a game that was really emphasized around here, everybody was walking around hanging their heads," Anderson said. "Now I can see if the first offense and the first defense and the second offense and the second defense go out there and stink it up. But what I'm looking for is the first team to go out there, play well, score some touchdowns and keep getting ready for the regular season."
Spikes would like to see the defense improve its pass rush with the help of a defeaning home crowd. The two guys who would really like to see that are the Bengals' offensive tackles, Anderson and Rod Jones. Make that, hear it.
"It seems like everywhere we go, we've got a hard time hearing," said Jones, who struggled with the noise in Tennessee and Seattle last year. "That's such an advantage. It would be great if we get it here."
Anderson: "Hopefully, the new stadium gives the tackles some hell. The way we play is going to give them something to cheer about. Getting the crowd to cheer is what you have to do. Any good defense needs a home crowd of maniacs. I hope it's loud as hell. A crowd can be the 12th man."
But then there are guys like Spikes who would take a win in checkers at the old folks home at this point. Cinergy? Nippert? Riverfront? PB?
"I want a win so bad," Spikes said, "I'm like an addict craving for a win."
He knows he just described the first crowd at Paul Brown Stadium.