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Hobson's Choice: Search for consistency

Q: When are the Bengals going to beat teams they aren't supposed to beat? Other than division rivals, when was the last time the Bengals beat a good team? Was it Kansas City when Peter Warrick ran wild?
--Mark E., Hollywood, Fla.

MARK: A little later. When Chad Johnson ran wild just this November in New Orleans with 190 yards against the 6-3 Saints. Or how about holding AFC North champ Baltimore scoreless until the last minute in a 13-7 win even after that, on Nov. 30? But short-term memory loss is expected after such a traumatic December.

That's how you get the pundits' kiss of death: "Underachieving."

No question the four most disappointing games of '06 were the blowout losses to New England and Indy, and the losses in the last two games of the season to teams that didn't make the playoffs when they needed to just beat one to make it themselves.

And they were playing well enough before losing to the Patriots and Colts that you thought they had a shot to break into the elite with a win.

But after starting 3-0, New England did a number on them at home and then after winning four straight while allowing just four touchdowns, the Bengals gave up four touchdown passes to Peyton Manning in 24 minutes.

It's the inconsistency that is keeping them from the elite. Giving up 72 points to the Pats and Colts is why people question if this defense is good enough to beat the best teams when it counts, and until they do, the heat will continue.

In each game the offense went 2-for-11 on third down, so the defense can't only take the burden.

But they've had a few surprises since Warrick stunned the unbeaten Chiefs with a punt return and a bomb, both in the fourth quarter, back in November of '03.

They weren't supposed to beat the 5-1 Broncos when they were 1-4 in '04, and in that same season they were 5-6 when they stunned the 7-4 Ravens on the road with a first-year starting quarterback who had won only once on the road at that point.

In '05 the pundits certainly didn't pick them to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh 42 days after the Steelers rushed for 221 yards at Paul Brown Stadium.

And given the Chiefs' Opening Day success at home, new coach Herman Edwards, and Carson Palmer's rustiness, you'd have to say that their 23-10 win in Kansas City last year wasn't altogether expected.

Plus, a lot of people expected them to get blown out of the water by the Saints' Drew Brees on the road a week after the crushing loss to San Diego and their 338-yard passing attack.

And Brees did light them up for 510, but no one figured Johnson would put up a 190 spot a week after scalding the Chargers for 260.

It is what it is. A good team looking to make it to the next rung. The nice thing and the torturous thing about them is you never know.

But when you do, they'll be in the elite.

Q: Some believe Marvin Lewis has gotten 'tougher' in the locker room to try to prevent any more arrests which leads to my question. Could a tougher Marvin Lewis in the locker room backfire on the team chemistry? You look at Tom Coughlin in NY or Lane Kiffin in Oakland and there have been reports of players reacting negatively to their tough love. Given the character of some of our players ... might this backfire?
--Ernie Z., Gahanna, OH

ERNIE: No question that an NFL head coach nowadays has to be as much diplomat as he is disciplinarian. Like any good coach, Lewis "sees more than he hears," and I think that means adjusting to circumstances. Each year, it's a different team because of additions, subtractions, and what happened the year before.

You're right.

An NFL head coach has to walk such a delicate line. You can't have a double standard, but you also can't survive if you treat 53 guys the same way. There are different egos, salaries, contract situations and talent level, and to pull everyone together for the common good ain't as easy as it looks.

It's a thankless job, really. Rule One is you can't make everyone happy. Somebody is always griping or underpaid or underrated or under-respected, and the media and the fans are never satisfied.

No one wants to be called a player's coach, but there's no doubt that Lewis is popular in the locker room and the proof is they play for him. You can gripe about his three 8-8 seasons all you want, but he's one of only five coaches that haven't had a losing season since he became a head coach in 2003.

I still think he got ripped off on Coach of the Year twice, in '03 and '05.

Some of the guys said this spring that the Bengals are running a tighter ship, which would seem to suggest that Lewis is adjusting to this particular team and what has gone on before.

But I don't think you can say Lewis was soft before. He has benched guys for either starts or entire games for breaking team rules, a list that includes Pro Bowlers like Chad Johnson, Rudi Johnson and Deltha O'Neal.

Before Chris Henry and Odell Thurman became synonymous with trouble, he benched them once each (Thurman for a start, Henry for a game) their rookie year, and last year he benched Ahmad Brooks when his attention to detail didn't exactly enrapture the head coach.

A.J. Nicholson, you can surmise, was sent a message last month, and we'll see if Lewis follows through on his threat to take away playing time if something happens during the season.

But how long before they turn you off and turn you out? These are grown men with their own lives.

No question, a balancing act. But I don't see Lewis ever ending up like a Coughlin or starting like a Kiffin. He's got too much rapport with players.

Q: What's going on with Odell Thurman? I know he was going to apply for reinstatement, but I haven't heard a thing about it. Is Goodell just sitting on it for a while? I was just wondering what's the latest?
--Ernie, Portsmouth, OH

ERNIE: The word is he's working out in hopes of the NFL reinstating him around July 11. Those close to Thurman said earlier this month that they're hopeful because he's been following the guidelines set forth in the NFL substance abuse program, but they don't think they'll be told about the decision until around that July 11 date.

Then, of course, the Bengals have to decide what to do with him. All indications are they'll take him to camp if reinstated.

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