10-4-02, 5:15 p.m.
Jon Kitna is getting another, final chance Sunday to show the last two games of 2001 weren't a mirage.
And so is really Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau, who has attempted in the past few weeks to become tighter and tougher with his underachieving team.
LeBeau and Kitna are really one in the same. They are, just simply, good, decent men trying to extend their football careers with their characteristic scrappy styles. Kitna is LeBeau's third quarterback in three weeks. Which should tell you LeBeau doesn't want management heading into the Oct. 20 bye week with this same average margin of defeat, which is 24 amazing points.
LeBeau has survived 44 years in the NFL as a Pro Bowl player and Super Bowl coordinator even though people yapped about his speed, later about his newfangled zone blitz, and now about his laid-back management style. People want to keep burying Kitna because of his weak arm, small hands, and occasional but killing gross lapses in judgment. But he has survived because he has a way of finding ways to win with a 24-24 career starting record.
That's better than it looks. Of the 55 NFL quarterbacks who came into this season with 10 or more starts, 23 are over .500 and 29 are under .500. Kitna and Sunday's opponent, Peyton Manning, along with Brian Griese, started the season .500.
"Coach LeBeau does what is necessary," Kitna said this week. "That's what I like about Dick. I think we're the same kind of competitor and that we'll do whatever it takes to get the team into the best situation to win."
The knock through this dreadful 0-4- 119-23 run in and outside of the locker room is that the Bengals are too soft and LeBeau too easy. The too-many -men penalties, and the early mistakes are signs of an undisciplined team. How else to explain that the most expensive Bengals' team in history and their most experienced team in the free-agency era has fallen behind a combined, 78-10 at halftime?
But LeBeau has apparently responded. Some players said he started fining players more regularly a couple of weeks ago and that this week was particularly stricter than it has been.
"Dick feels like he needs to step up the discipline because we're not a mature enough team to handle it by ourselves," Kitna said. "We should be mature
enough to handle it by ourselves. Winning should mean enough to you to do what's asked of you. If it doesn't, then the coach needs to step in and do what he's doing. I think that's a good approach by him. That's what I mean. He does what is necessary."
When asked if he's too laid back, LeBeau won't toy with you.
"It's a situation where things aren't going well and people want to know why," LeBeau said. "We're going to pull out of this thing. I'm not really focused on those questions. I'm only focused on the answer and that's to play better."
If the players are steamed at anybody, it's not LeBeau, but their own teammates. One veteran asked the other day, "Do we look like we're an 0-4 team when we're in the locker room? I don't think so. You can see that."
That's the school of thought that says some players are too comfortable with losing. That's the Paul Brown Health Club theory. Show up, eat lunch, break a sweat, and then they give you a towel and a check, and you're home by 5. How about somebody getting in somebody's face after one of those unsportsmanlike conduct calls?
But others say the passion is there, that it's dangerous to get too tight, and LeBeau is playing it right. Kitna says LeBeau has hit the right chord because he has admitted his mistakes to the team.
"The best thing about it is you feel like he's going through it with you," Kitna said. "He's not pointing fingers and saying, 'You guys aren't doing this,' He's looking at himself, the coaches, everything. He's apologized to the team for the mistakes he's made. He says whatever he'll do to turn it around, he'll do and we can all see that. To me that's a great approach."
Which is probably why he has survived 44 years. LeBeau is Old School charming. His dignity, humor, and decency belong to another era of coaching. Heck, another era of humanity before the sound bite intruded. He is the anti Brian Billick.
He never thinks about the questions. Only answers. The Old School doesn't hold such seminars entitled, "Relating to the Modern Player."
Can a guy who often worked an off-season job while playing a record 171 straight games at cornerback coach millionaires to do the little things? Can a guy who played when the grass was as real as the work ethic and the players virtually coached themselves survive now in a more complicated time? LeBeau cut off the idea.
"It's no different. These are football players then and now," LeBeau said. "That's a question for a socio-economic guy. I'm a football coach."
Which is why Charles Richard LeBeau goes to Indy Saturday confident he can come back with the icebreaker.
"We're going to pull out of this," Kitna said, "because of the way he handles things."