Identity crisis?

9-8-02, 10: 25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Another year, another quarterback. But right tackle Willie Anderson had the same old question Sunday in the debris of the worst loss ever in a Bengals' home opener.

"What are we? A running team or a passing team?" Anderson asked after the 34-6 no-show against the Chargers. "My question is, 'Whose decision is it to make what we are?'"

There was indecision right from the get go on offense Sunday. The Bengals were flagged for delay of game on their first play, even though they were coming out of a TV timeout and nine months of preparation.

Anderson, one of the offensive captains who played his Bengals-high 95th game Sunday, went out of his way to say he doesn't want to cause controversy with the coaches or division with his teammates, and he took responsibility for his part in a woeful show in which the Bengals rushed for 36 yards, their lowest since the Bears shackled them for 35 last yar.

But after watching Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon touch the ball twice in the Bengals' first three series, which went punt-interception-punt, Anderson decided to pull rank and urged more patience in the running game.

"I don't care if people are going to get mad. I've been losing for seven years here. I've played more games for the

Bengals than anybody," Anderson said.

"Their back had the ball. I'm tired of Corey Dillon, first four games every year, he's got 30 carries . . .We have to find a way to get Corey Dillon 400 carries this season."

Dillon ended up with just nine carries for 10 yards, his fewest attempts since he got hurt in two 1999 games, a six-carry game against the Colts in which he suffered a bad cut on his arm, and a 10-carry outing against the Ravens that got cut short with a knee injury.

But there's also a school of thought that says the Chargers' defensive line so thoroughly beat up the Bengals' front line that they could have given him the ball 100 times and it wouldn't have mattered. The Bengals even tried blocking the run with three tackles, sending in first-round pick Levi Jones as a tight end several times, and they couldn't budge San Diego.

Dillon shrugged and admonished the media for asking what he thought were leading questions.

"If I had a cape, I could fly," Dillon said. "I'm not pointing the finger at anybody. They outplayed us. They beat us. Plain and simple. I don't know how many times I have to say it."

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau was toughest on the defense, saying the unit didn't give quarterback Gus Frerotte or the offense a chance in Frerotte's Cincinnati debut.

Those who would argue in Anderson's favor can point to the first play of the Bengals' second series from their own 11, with Cincinnati trailing, 3-0. The Bengals tried a pass and it got intercepted to set up San Diego's first touchdown, and on their next series ignored Dillon while completing just one of three passes to force a punt.

And there are those who would argue Dillon carried three times on the next six plays and managed minus-two yards, so why keep beating a dead horse if the offensive line can't get him any room?

"It's on the players. We have to block the run early so the coaches will call it," Anderson said. "The offensive line has to do the job and we didn't do the job today. (The coaches') thing is, 'We called it, but y'all didn't block it.'"

Still, Anderson wonders what would happen if they rode the horse a little longer. He told his linemates on their third full series that if they didn't get Dillon positive yards, the coaches would start throwing. Dillon carried four more times after those three carries for minus-two yards.

"We're not like Tennessee. We're not like Pittsburgh," Anderson said. "Teams that go, 'Well, we'll keep running it no mater what.' We're not like that. If we don't him going early, if we don't get him positive three, four, five yards, we're airing it out. We throw some incompletions, that stops the clock, their defense rests, and our defense is back on the field."

With the Chargers knowing the Bengals had to throw, they sacked Frerotte four times. The Bengals went their first seven games last year before allowing four sacks, the most they surrendered in 2001.

Frerotte's Bengals' debut was miserable. He hit just 18 of 31 passes for 198 yards, and although he connected with wide receiver Danny Farmer for a 51-yard pass that was the team's longest completion since 1999, it was his only throw longer than 16 yards.

But he was also the victim of some inexplicable things that should never happen to a quarterback.

The Bengals couldn't even get off their first play on time. They didn't want to show their hand to San Diego too early, and ran Jones on to the field as fullback Lorenzo Neal came off. But they didn't even come close to getting the play off in time:

LeBeau: "There was some communication problems between the officials of when they were going to start the clock. We were waiting to show our first offense personnel package until the last second. The clock just went down faster than we thought. It shouldn't happen, but it did."

Frerotte indicated that no adjustment might have been made coming out of the timeout. Usually, there is 40 seconds to get a play off, but coming out of a TV timeout, there is only 25 seconds.

"We can't have those kind of mistakes," Frerotte said. "We have to be solid from top to bottom. It's the only way to win."

Another inexplicable mistake on offense came with the Bengals trailing, 13-0, but driving in Chargers' territory for the first time at the San Diego 42. But receiver Michael Westbrook made a one-yard loss for Dillon so much worse when he leaped on the pile to go after Chargers strong safety Rodney Harrison.

Ever hear of a late hit on offense?

"That hurt us," Frerotte said.

The Bengals' red-zone woes from last season and the preseason continued when Farmer lugged the Bengals to the Chargers 6 on his 51-yard catch-and-run in the second half's first two minutes. But disaster kept stalking the offense. Frerotte called the second timeout in the half's first 2:52 (they lost a replay challenge), and still couldn't score.

Frerotte tried to squeeze in a touchdown pass to wide receiver Chad Johnson, but safety Vernon Fox tipped it away. Then wide receiver Ron Dugans got called for a penalty, and on third down a swing pass to Dillon got diagnosed for just a two-yard gain and Neil Rackers had to settle for a 21-yard field goal.

"We figured they would go with the first back out of the backfield, but they actually played a zone and dropped off. I just dumped it off to Corey and hope he'll make a guy miss. They had a good defense on for that play.

"I thought we got a bad call when Duges got a hand to the face and they said he put his hand in the guy's face.

"We can't have stuff like that," Frerotte said. We can't have that happen in the red zone. We have to score in the red zone."

The Chargers scored a touchdown in the red zone when his first Bengals' completion went to Chargers cornerback Alex Molden at the Cincinnati 14. Frerotte tried to rifle a quick pass on the perimeter to Peter Warrick, but Molden jumped the route.

"He guessed right," Frerotte said. "It was cover two, and usually in cover two, you figure guys are going to hang on the outside. I tried to throw it down low to P. Dub, and he undercut it. He made a good play. He guessed right. If he guesses wrong and we have the right play on, he's burnt."

But on a day nothing at all went right, you knew which was that was going. Like everyone else, Frerotte had a hard time explaining the thoroughness of the beating.

"People are booing us already," Frerotte said. "It's the first game and we didn't play a great game, but I've been a lot of places and we're not going to listen to that stuff. We're going to go out and be a new Bengals' team. As long as I'm here, as long as I'm playing. I'm not going to let this stuff go on."

With LeBeau so upset at the defense, it's safe to assume he's not looking to make changes yet on offense.

"I don't think we gave him a chance today," LeBeau said of Frerotte. "San Diego had the football all day."

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