Is LeBeau in?

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Welcome to Limbo Week for the Bengals as they prepare for this Sunday's season finale in Philadelphia even though some veterans expect Dick LeBeau to return as head coach next season.

The prevailing consensus is Sunday's 17-14 victory over Jacksonville has all but secured LeBeau's job as head coach in his own right. Barring an ugly, Titans- proportions Christmas Eve collapse against the Eagles, LeBeau would figure to be retained the day after Christmas as a reward for keeping the Bengals focused in the wake of Bruce Coslet's Sept. 25 resignation.

But the man making the call, Bengals President Mike Brown, won't say if consensus is right. In fact, he's not saying anything in drawing a curtain down around any talk about LeBeau's status and other issues surrounding next year.

Brown won't address those questions until after the season, but the locker room continues to back LeBeau. Brown clearly noticed there was no repeat of last week's 35-3 blowout at the hands of the Titans.

It would be the trend with interim coach Dave McGinnis, also popular with his players, getting rehired by an Arizona team that has been drilled the past few weeks. Including by the Bengals.

And where is that hot offensive-minded Superman with the big name who's going to fly into town to rescue quarterback Akili Smith and sell tickets in a single bound?

"I fully expect him to be here," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson, one of the many LeBeau handed a game ball from Sunday's victory.

Told Brown might have to sacrifice a coach in order to placate the demands of a new stadium and angry fans staring at 10 straight seasons without a winning record, Gibson pleaded a case he hopes the fans hear.

"He's the best man to lead this team at this point in time," Gibson said. "All I know is what coach LeBeau says. He says in order to fight in the North Atlantic, you have to fight in the North Atlantic. You don't dump your leader on the way out to the North Atlantic who is ready to fight with you."

In fact, Gibson, the Bengals' most effective free-agent pickup since the system began, is ready to re-enlist. His contract ends after next season, but agent David Levine said he and the club are talking about an extension.

As one of the agents for Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon, Levine is also at the center of the other burning offseason question.

But he had no comment on those negotiations as the Bengals hope to keep Dillon off the free-agent market with numbers they say are "considerably bigger," than the anticipated transition tag of $4 million per year.

Some decisions were made Monday. With Scott Mitchell 2-2 as the starting quarterback, LeBeau said Akili Smith won't play in Philadelphia and, "I just want him to continue what he's doing. Get himself ready to grow and improve his game and I think Akili Smith (is) going to be a fine football player."

LeBeau, 4-8 since taking over a team that had been outscored, 74-7, in its first three games, got peppered about his fate at Monday's news conference at Paul Brown Stadium.

"In 'The Wizard of Oz,' when the wicked witch had Dorothy in front of her, she said, 'All in good time, my pretty. All in good time,'" LeBeau said. "That will happen. I supposed if it didn't happen, that will tell you something, too, but it'll happen."

LeBeau made sure that he was the witch in that scenario and the media Dorothy. He's coached for Brown for 16 seasons and knows no one has melted until after the end-of-season meeting. There'll be no meeting until after the final game. They talk every day on all matters, but LeBeau said there's only been one indication.

"Beat Philadelphia. And I think that's enough," LeBeau said.

At times Monday, LeBeau seemed like a man bracing for disappointment. He cited his age of 63 ("I'm not 21 years old. . .I'm not naïve. I am what I am basically") and said he has stopped to smell the roses of his first chance at being a head coach in 42 NFL seasons.

"Because I realized how lucky I was to get this opportunity," LeBeau said. "To have the players speak as some of them have done is something I take great pride in. I won't lie about that."

The enormous respect in the room is LeBeau's biggest capital. The dean of the defense, tackle John Copeland, has been saying for weeks that he assumes LeBeau is back, just by the way he carries himself and talks about the future.

"He gave us a direction and

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focus," said quarterback Scott Mitchell. "He tried to instill some things we needed. A mindset, practice habits. Being responsible, disciplined, being on time to meetings and practice."

Of course, Mitchell himself is one of those question marks. On Monday, the first Bengals quarterback to be .500 after more than three games since Boomer Esiason's season-ending run in '97, said he'd love to stay and play for LeBeau.

The Bengals have indicated they would make a run at re-signing Mitchell and so far they like what they see. But what offense would he run? Will it be the same if LeBeau returns or doesn't return?

They don't call it Limbo for nothing.

"He's got a difficult decision," said LeBeau of Brown's call. "We can do this job. We've expressed publicly that we'd like to do it and we honor whatever decision is made. . .I think that being in this organization for as many years I've been in it, I believe those decisions are made with the best interests of the franchise at heart.

"If the decision is made favorably or not so favorably," LeBeau said, "I'll certainly be able to accept it as that. . .I don't know what else to say."

Players believe LeBeau has been unable to put his entire stamp on another man's team and would do things much differently from the opening day of offseason workouts.

"Sure, I'd do it Dick LeBeau's way and that would be different," he said, but didn't discuss specifics because the speculation, "would be counter-productive for all of us."

LeBeau said he doesn't think he's done all he can to retain the job because the club won only four games. He said he's proud of his coaches and players and that his different approach was adopted, but "I wish we could have won more games."

LeBeau says being a head coach with an office in Limbo is no problem and that there'll be no loss of focus this Sunday. He's been through it before, but he knows it's hard for a coaching staff he thinks pulled together remarkably well in the early-morning chaos of Sept. 25.

And that's another thing. Will LeBeau, also serving as the defensive coordinator, hire his own coordinator if he returns as head coach? And would that mean linebackers coach Mark Duffner, the youngest defensive coordinator in the nation 22 years ago at the University of Cincinnati, get promoted?

Welcome to Limbo.

"If we have to win perform Sunday for (LeBeau) to come back, so be it," Gibson said. "All I know is, I expect him back."

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