Hope in numbers?

8:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Steve Mooshagian figures he could win a million bucks out on the street or even in the Paul Brown Stadium press box with some of the numbers he's unearthed this past week.

Which of these two teams _the Cincinnati Bengals or the St. Louis Rams _ got more production from their wide receivers off the bench this past season?

Which team finished behind Jacksonville's Hall-of-Fame receiving duo and the Rams' No. 1 offense for the third most receptions by a group of wide receivers in the NFL in 2001?

The Bengals are the answer to both questions, but Mooshagian isn't taking any bets. He's going to keep his day job as the club's receivers coach even though he knows some were calling for his head after a tumultuous and inconsistent season at his position.

Mooshagian has lived a season of perception and reality. He knows he could be perceived as a laid-back Californian who isn't demanding enough from a group in which all but one is either a rookie or a second-year player. But his statistical study at the end of the season has convinced Mooshagian that he and the Bengals are on the right track with the second youngest group of receivers in the NFL.

"There's a perception and there's a reality," Mooshagian said Thursday in front of his sheaf of papers. "For me, it was an educational study because I wanted to see where we are compared to other units in the NFL. I wanted to see if I was off base with my thoughts that we're closer than where people think we are. In general, the answer is we're real close. Keeping the core of this group of receivers together is going to pay dividends. Look at where our linebackers are now after staying together for four seasons.

"We don't have a recognizable Pro Bowl guy or anyone that fits the whole package, but we've got a very good group," Mooshagian said. "We don't have that one guy who is able to line up in the backfield to pass protect, to playing in the slot, to playing the outside, to guys who can go in motion and hunt for the safety. But everybody has their little niche, which is why I think we're stronger as a unit than as individuals."

Mooshagian admits there are questions that have to be resolved in the next few months:

Does Darnay Scott's age (30 at training camp) and production (two touchdowns this past season) merit a $3.9 million salary cap hit? How can Peter Warrick get into the end zone after scoring just one touchdown this past season? Hasn't Danny Farmer earned a more regular role after catching five of his 15 balls in the last two games for an average of 18 yards in an offense that couldn't get down the field in the previous seven games?

And Mooshagian knows there are things to work on. The six receivers combined for just seven touchdowns and 11.5 yards per catch. Only the Panthers (four) and Buccaneers (three) had fewer touchdowns from their wide receivers and only Chicago's unit had fewer yards per catch.

But Mooshagian also looks at his six receivers' total of 219 catches, good for third in the NFL, and 2,522 yards, good for eighth in the NFL among team wide-receiver totals.

He also looks at the numbers minus his two starters, Scott and Warrick, and sees his backup receivers combined for a NFL-leading 92 catches. Their 1,036 yards trailed first-place Atlanta by just 37 yards. They had 13 more catches and 99 more yards than the celebrated Rams' bench led by Ricky Proehl and Az Hakim.

Of course, the Rams don't need a bench with running back Marshall Faulk's 83 catches. But the closest bench in the more human AFC is the Colts with 74.

And, of the 18 wide receivers who finished in the AFC receiving's top 25 , just four (Warrick, Seattle's Darrell Jackson, Pittsburgh's Plaxico Burress and the Jets' Laveranues Coles) had less than three years experience.

"I know statistics aren't everything and you can do anything you want with them," Mooshagian said. "But they show there has been

production and that we'll get better. You look at the AFC leaders and the lack of first- and second-year players and it takes time for these guys to develop. It takes a couple of years to get the timing with the quarterback and experience in the system."

There are also elements beyond the computer. The two biggest passing days in recent Bengals' memory came in the last two games of the season, right after a sideline shouting incident between rookie receiver Chad Johnson and quarterback Jon Kitna in Game 14 culminated a tense six weeks between Kitna and the receivers. During the next week of intense one-on-one meetings with an upset group, Mooshagian kept his unit intact mentally long enough so they could produce huge games. He thinks the last two games show that the discipline and focus is there.

"People might think (the opposite) because I portray a laid-back, maybe easy-going personality," Mooshagian said. "They might say, 'He's a California guy. A West Coast guy.' I don't buy that. There's different ways to coach. I have a similar style as Coach (Dick) LeBeau. Everyone has their own style of coaching. Not every style works. I'm confident my style will work. It has worked. It's been successful everywhere I've been. We're just going through some growing pains right here. We're going in the right direction. Everyone I talk to says we're close."

Kitna didn't hesitate to point the finger at his receivers, but Mooshagian says one example of perception over reality is that the term "receivers," also means tight ends and running backs.

"The bottom line is that there was no one person or group solely responsible for the success or failure of the passing game," Mooshagian said. "It was a group effort."

One of the off-season projects is getting Warrick untracked. His longest catch was just 33 yards, he averaged just 9.5 yards per catch, and he grumbled about being in the slot in the multi-receiver sets.

Mooshagian thinks Warrick can produce like Pittsburgh's Hines Ward did this past season. Ward averaged 10.7 yards on his 94 catches (his longest catch was a 34-yarder) to barely get 1,000 yards. But he is a game-breaker Pro Bowl alternate this year for the Steelers as an athletic guy who can bust screen passes, line up in the backfield, run reverses, and play the slot receiver.

"I see Peter as a guy like that who can help us in so many different ways," Mooshagian said. "They're the same type of athlete. High School quarterback. Hines may be a more devastating blocker, but Peter is a more dangerous punt returner.

"We haven't seen him do what he can there, yet," Mooshagian said. "He's trying to do too much and made some bad decisions. He has to come to grips with who he is and what he is and he'll be fine. He's already made tremendous strides."

Mooshagian has also spent the week charting how each receiver does out of each formation and on down and distance. For instance, Warrick might bristle in the slot, but he's averaging more yards per catch there (11) than any place else. And Johnson may have caught just 28 passes, but 13 of them came on third-and-seven or longer with a 12.2 average.

Mooshagian also figured that if Seattle's Jackson is the best first day draft value (taken in the first three rounds) among wide receivers from the class of 2000, then the Bengals have the best second day (last four rounds) receivers from the last two drafts.

Farmer, who came to the Bengals just before last season via waivers after the Steelers cut their fourth-round pick, has 34 catches for 496 yards in his two seasons to lead all those receivers drafted in rounds four through seven in 2000.

So did rookie T.J. Houshmandzadeh for the 2001 draft. Houshmandzadeh, the Bengals' seventh-round pick, had as any catches as first-rounder Freddie Mitchell (21), as many touchdowns as first-rounder Reggie Wayne (0), and nearly as many yards per catch as first-rounder David Terrell with 10.9 to 12.2, respectively.

But Mooshagian knows the Bengals have to win and his guys have to score if the critics are to be silenced and reality routs perception.

"But the numbers tell you we're close," he said.

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