LeBeau continues to get support

12-9-02, 7:05 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

CHARLOTTE, N.C. _ It was a double whammy for Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau.

After the defensive guru watched his team give up the most points in Bengals' history in a 52-31 loss to the Panthers here Sunday, he slid below Dave Shula and became the franchise's losingest coach with a record of 11-31.

LeBeau, believed to be in the last year of his contract, isn't getting that second-half streak he needed that would have made his return next year fairly certain. But as his status stays in limbo, he continued to get support Sunday from not only his own locker room, but also Carolina's.

In his scathing critique of the organization in Sunday's "Charlotte Observer," Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner didn't recall fondly the 1997 season he spent with the Bengals.

"Dick LeBeau is probably the best coach I ever had on

and off the field. It's more that guys don't feel like the organization gives you the best chance to win," Buckner told the newspaper. "It's more of the stuff that's off the field. People don't feel the organization gives the players there a good chance to win."

After barely missing interceptions on the Panthers' first two scoring drives of the second half, Bengals strong safety JoJuan Armour said fans should be looking at the players.

"Coach LeBeau is probably the best thing to happen to this team. It's not his fault," Armour said. "If anybody wants to point fingers, they should point fingers at us. It's not Coach LeBeau's fault. He's a great coach. If anybody is saying otherwise, they don't know what they're talking about."

Buckner, who followed LeBeau to Cincinnati from Pittsburgh, couldn't wait to come back from his four-game NFL suspension to show the Bengals just what they've been missing. He had one of four Carolina sacks and forced a safety of Bengals running back Corey Dillon.

"Before I got to Cincinnati, I heard that people show up for the last game with U-Hauls already packed, ready to drive home," Buckner said. "And it happened. It was bad. I ain't never felt that way here."

Buckner said he thought the players and coaches "were great," in Cincinnati, but he ripped the scouting department, as well as the strength-and-conditioning program, and facilities, although he was in Cincinnati before the club moved to Paul Brown Stadium in 2000.

POST-SEASON WORK: Maybe the Bengals' coaches are going to make it into the post-season after all. According to the Senior Bowl web site, the North and South teams will now be coached by NFL staffs with the teams that have the top two picks in April's NFL Draft.

With three games left, the Bengals look to be all but in. They have a two-game lead on Detroit and Minnesota for the worst record. But if the Bengals do make coaching changes after the season, the NFL would probably send another club's coaches. They would have to be in Mobile, Ala., by at least Jan. 12 for the Jan. 18 game.

Before this year, the NFL office made the call based on the outcome of the regular season, with the two teams in each conference that finished with the best regular season record but did not make the playoffs. The Arizona and Seattle staffs worked the game last year.

PASSING FANCY: The Bengals' defense had a lot of help in giving up the dubious record of most points in Bengals' history Sunday. They weren't on the field for 23 of the points.

But they also let the game get out of hand in the second half by allowing the NFL's No. 31 pass offense to go nuts with 319 passing yards, all but 82 in the second half. This is a team that hadn't passed for 200 yards in nine of the previous 10 games. And for just the fourth time this season, they allowed no sacks.

In their locker room, the Panthers said the Bengals were so concerned about

stopping the run with eight and nine men at the line of scrimmage, that they dared quarterback Rodney Peete to beat them passing. The 36-year-old did, coming within four yards of his career passing high.

"They came out with a lot of play action," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "We didn't make any plays, they threw the ball all over the field, the quarterback had plenty of time. It was a bad combination. . .We weren't on the field for 23 of them, but what are you going to do? We're a team. That's what matters."

Hawkins bruised his thigh at the end of the first quarter and didn't return, which put safety Mark Roman in the slot on most passing downs. The Bengals got free safety Cory Hall's interception on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half, but could have had two on the Panthers' first two scoring drives in the second half that gave them a 30-24 lead.

On the first play of the second half, Armour got his hands on a pass to tight end Wesley Walls, but it bounced into Walls' hands for a 27-yard completion. Even then, the Panthers overcame two straight holding calls and scored on a first-and-20 when wide receiver Steve Smith ran by the secondary for a 31-yard touchdown catch.

Then after linebacker Takeo Spikes gave the Bengals a 24-23 lead four minutes into the half when he ran 45 yards for a touchdown with Peete's fumble, the Panthers went deep again. Both Armour and Roman looked to have a play on a pass to wideout Muhsin Muhammad, but it went through more hands for a 26-yarder.

"On the first one, he just made a good play on the ball," Armour said. "On the second, he got it on the tip."

Smith (144) and Muhammad (106) came into the game with just 1,098 receiving yards combined.

**

SLANTS AND SCREENS:** In an effort to give his players a break from a mentally trying season, head coach Dick LeBeau gave his players Monday off and told them to be ready Wednesday. . .

Former Bengals coach Sam Wyche, who lives in South Carolina, sat in the press box and, as if to salute him, the Bengals opened the game in his no-huddle offense that produced a touchdown on seven plays in just 2:14.

"It worked until the second time we did it. They did a good job (figuring it out)," said quarterback Jon Kitna. . .

The Bengals wide receivers continued their solid play. Chad Johnson had his fourth 100-yard game (114) in the last five, and Peter Warrick had the first multi-

touchdown game of his career with catches of 37 and three yards.

Johnson is on pace for 1,114 yards. Warrick finished with three catches for 52 yards and took a shot to the chest from cornerback Reggie Howard early in the second half on an incompletion over the middle and played sparingly after the play.

"We always score in the no-huddle," Warrick said. "The last time we ran it against Cleveland, we scored on something like five plays."

But Warrick said the Bengals going away from the no-huddle later in the game had nothing to do with the loss: "We were executing our plays. It's just hard to win a game getting points scoring off fumbles (and) two punt returns." . . .

Bengals RB Corey Dillon moved into 32nd place on the all-time rushing list past Leroy Kelly Sunday. He now has 7,282 yards, and is 96 yards shy of another old Cleveland back in Mike Pruitt.

Running back Brandon Bennett (knee) is probable for next week after missing his second straight game Sunday. . .DE Vaughn Booker (rib cage) who was also inactive Sunday, is questionable. All players nicked in Sunday's game, including cornerback Artrell Hawkins (thigh) and Warrick are probable.

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