BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals fans gather in the Paul Brown Stadium tundra this Christmas Weekend to get a glimpse of what might have been and what they hope will be when Tom Coughlin brings his Giants into the final home game of the season on a seven-game losing streak.
It will be recalled in the first frantic days of 2003 that Coughlin and Marvin Lewis were the frontrunners to succeed Dick LeBeau as head coach, and now in the last days of 2004 we see how differently they approach their respective programs ...
Bengals running back Rudi Johnson knows it could be his last day in PBS as a Bengal, but he knows no matter what happens in free agency after the season that he has developed a special bond with the Cincinnati fans ...
After their first major gaffe last week under Lewis, the Bengals special teams try to get a handle on New York's explosive kick returners that have given the Giants the NFL's best average drive start.
R-di, Ru-di, Ru-di...
"They embraced me when the green light was given in that first start and it's been a great thing," Johnson said this past week of the fans. "If it's going to be my last game here, I'm going to make it fun for them and for me."
It usually is if Johnson is carrying the ball up the field. Last year, all four of his 100-yard games came at PBS. This year, three of his five have been at home, including the fifth 200-yard game in club history last month against the Browns. How fitting would it be if he gets at least 112 Sunday against the Giants at home, giving him team records with six 100-yard games and 1,436 yards this season?
Johnson knows he has a special chemistry with the crowd. He knows they appreciate his ride-the-bike determination that has allowed him to come off the training camp bubble in 2003 and be on the verge of erasing the name of the bigger, flashier and louder Corey Dillon from some of the record book's marquee categories.
His contract could have been a black hole of distraction this season, but Johnson rendered it meaningless by silently riding the stationary bike on the sidelines between snaps of a season that his patient, heartland style has produced 100-yard games against two defenses ranked No. 1 in the NFL, a No. 3, a No. 6, and a No. 12.
"They know I'm going to interact with them on and off the field," Johnson said. "I hear them. It gets everybody excited, not just me. It's when I'm running with the ball, and sometimes I can hear them, and I can hear them after."
"Ru-udi. Ru-udi. Ru-udi."
Johnson thinks the chant gets louder as the game goes along.
"It gets louder and louder. Especially in the fourth quarter," Johnson said. "I can tell."
He still doesn't say much about the contract. About all he'll allow is he's surprised it's not done yet. His agent and the Bengals aren't talking, but all indications are the team didn't like the numbers that were floated last offseason and the figures have done nothing buy skyrocket.
With two mega contracts already in the fold for quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Chad Johnson, the Bengals have to grapple with an Indy-like scenario where paying Johnson in the $6 million per year range would render them useless in free agency, or letting another franchise back leave for the second straight offseason.
"I'm not thinking about it," Johnson said. "It is what it is."
What might have been
Johnson is what the fans hope to see in the future. Coughlin is what they might have been seeing now if the Bengals had hired him instead of Lewis. It was reported at the time that Coughlin was the favorite of Bengals President Mike Brown, but that his daughter, Katie Blackburn, and her husband, Troy Blackburn, exerted their growing influence to hire Lewis.
Yet, in the ensuing months, another version of the decision-making process has emerged in which there was more consensus in the Lewis hire than first thought. While Coughlin is held in high esteem by the Bengals front office that saw him twice a year for seven seasons with the Jaguars, his desire to have a hand in all aspects of the operation probably didn't fit the management style of a club in which the family ownership remains involved in football issues.
The Bengals head coach gets a wide berth, but many observers believe there would have been more battles with Coughlin, an earnest, successful, and demanding guy who can be uncompromising. Just ask his players.
"It will be good to see old Tom again," said Bengals linebacker Kevin Hardy, a man Coughlin selected with the second pick in the 1996 NFL Draft for the Jags. "I always didn't see eye-to-eye with him. There were guys that didn't agree with what he did, but we had a lot of success, too. Then, after we came so close so many times and then started rebuilding, things changed."
Coughlin's reputation flared in voluntary camps this past spring when he took the Giants job. He got reported to the NFL Players Association, apparently because players didn't like the mandatory 7 a.m. breakfast.
So, you could say there are two contrasting styles on the sidelines Sunday, but don't get carried away with that.
While Coughlin battles a reputation for being tough on players with what they see as nit-pick rules, Lewis enjoys a reputation for being popular around the league as a coach who doesn't get bogged down in minutia yet still demands discipline.
Defensive tackle John Thornton, who came to the Bengals because Lewis was here, can probably sum up the difference. As a high school player, Thornton went with a friend to Coughlin's Boston College summer football camp, and literally got kicked in the butt during stretching. It was probably playful on Coughlin's part, but Thornton still remembers it.
"Would you like a guy that kicked you in the butt?" Thornton asked. "But I think Marvin is tougher on players than people think. I don't know how he is with the offensive guys, but he's tough on us. He gets on you."
Just last week, cornerback Tory James went out of his way to praise Lewis for coming down on him and challenging him to play better, and James appreciated it was done demandingly, as well as candidly, positively, and privately.
So, discipline is something they have in common, but Sunday's matchup is carried by the contrasts. Coughlin is offense. Lewis is defense. Coughlin didn't sit his rookie quarterback for his first season, choosing not to waste a year and sacrificing a playoff run. Lewis iced Carson Palmer behind Jon Kitna as he chose to give his program credibility with a playoff run that took them to the last week.
With the Giants in the Super Bowl just four years ago, and the Bengals not there in the past 16 seasons, and the fact Coughlin took the Jags to two AFC title games, Coughlin had the capital that Lewis didn't to make such a move.
And yet, they have both undergone similar criticism. Coughlin is still getting ripped for making the quarterback change when the club was 5-4, exchanging Kurt Warner for Eli Manning just in time to play five defenses now ranked, 13, 9, 2, 6, and 1, respectively, even though Warner had a 86.5 passer rating. Lewis was ripped for tapping Palmer in the offseason even though Kitna was coming off his best year ever.
Coughlin, the offensive disciplinarian, is getting heat with the No. 23 offense and a team that has the eighth most penalty yards in the NFL. Lewis, the defensive disciplinarian, had been taking heat up until about six weeks ago for a leaky defense and still gets asked about an offense that has struggled with penalties on the road.
It took Palmer's last three starts and Kitna's first to vindicate Lewis. Coughlin is still waiting for validation of the move he made with Warner (primarily because he had thrown just six touchdown passes while getting sacked 39 times), and Manning's fine outing last week against the Steelers could be the start of it.
Special teams could make difference again
A week after their first major blunder under Lewis, the Bills' blocked punt for a touchdown, the Bengals have to deal with the Giants kick return unit that has two touchdowns by two different players. Wide receiver Willie Ponder and running back Derrick Ward have each gone all the way, but the way they're luck is going with injuries, the Giants will probably be able to only keep one active. It's probably going to be Ponder because they're so beat up at receiver, and because he took one 91 yards for a touchdown just last week against Pittsburgh.
Actually, the running back they have to worry about on the kicks is the off-returner, a crushing blocker named Ron Dayne. One Heisman Trophy winner likely won't play Sunday in Palmer and the other, the 5-10, 245-pound Dayne, is going to be content taking out his frustrations playing behind Tiki Barber with his blocking. They say he's been terrific opening up holes.
Meanwhile, Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons has gone back to basics after the Cincinnati teams gave up its first touchdown on his watch. Apparently, the lineman next to long snapper Brad St. Louis missed his block, putting St. Louis one-on-one, which isn't supposed to happen. But St. Louis wouldn't say that.
All he said is, "It's the little things. It's not supposed to happen and Darrin is going to make sure it won't. We're going to make sure we've already communicated."
One note. Giants punter Jeff Feagles has had two punts blocked this season. The last time the Bengals blocked a punt was nine years ago against the defunct Oilers.