12-9-02, 8 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Don't look for any more Travis-Dorsch-like experiments from Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau for the remaining three games of the season.
Which should mean that quarterback Jon Kitna is safe for the rest of the year. Akili Smith and Joe Germaine would appear to fall into the lab category, and LeBeau didn't hesitate to say Kitna is his man next week against the Jaguars.
"The coach retired as a prognosticator, and I'm retiring as an experimenter also. I didn't like the results of that one," LeBeau said at Monday's news conference.
But will Bengals President Mike Brown retire LeBeau after what is two losses away from becoming the worst season in Bengals' history? They appear to have made a non-future pact because while Brown refuses to discuss beyond the Dec. 29 season finale, LeBeau, believed to be in the last year of his contract, won't look past Sunday's game against the Jaguars.
" "I'm going to coach this team like I'm going to be here forever. All I'm thinking about is how we can be better now and in the future," said LeBeau, who admitted forever isn't forever. "I'm happy with the way our offense has played. No one has really shut
down our offense. They have been productive consistently, and I know that our defense played very well last year with many of the same people we have now. I do not look at this as a hopeless situation. But this is not a very good time to be talking like that, because we're not showing it in our win-loss record."
LeBeau said a couple of times Monday that he didn't think the Bengals were "very far away." But he also caught himself because he knows only 23 teams since the NFL expanded to 16 games in 1978 have gone 1-15 or 2-14. And the team has allowed a NFL-high 387 points this season and is on pace to allow a franchise-high 476 points, 11 points from the third most points allowed in a season by the 1980 New Orleans Saints.
Of course, he also knows it's just not the defense. There have an unbelievable nine touchdowns returned against the offense or special teams on three interceptions, four punts (including a block), a kickoff return, and a fumble in the end zone.
They are also approaching all-time annals there. The Bengals are one shy of the NFL record for allowing the most punt and kick return TDs combined in a season. The record is five, set by the 1994 Rams and 1998 Vikings. Blocked punts for TDs don't count.
LeBeau also knows he is balancing the fragile psyche of a team trying to win games with the object of looking ahead. It's a balance that was disrupted in some players' minds when the call went out to Dorsch, a rookie punter/kicker making his NFL debut.
"I think that it's important for this group of men to show success. I think they've done a good job of battling through adversity," LeBeau said. "Our offense has done a good job the last two months of improving. We haven't done enough good things to win games. The franchise will be here on into the future, however, and the 2002 season is not going to be a playoff season. Anything that you can do that would help you to be a playoff team in 2003, you would want to do."
Dorsch had two liners returned against him for touchdowns Sunday in Carolina, as well as a 10-yard punt. Although management had wanted to see its fourth-round pick, LeBeau indicated he also wanted to see what Dorsch would do after 12 games on the inactive list.
"My thinking on that was this: He's kind of like a relief pitcher; he's a backup for both of our kickers," LeBeau said. "I didn't think it made sense for (Dorsch) to go all year and never kick in a game. I wish I hadn't thought that way, but I did. We thought the weather would be more favorable at Carolina than in any of the remaining three. We wanted to give him some game experience, and that was the thinking process. I wish I hadn't thought that way, but that's the way I did it.
"The simple truth is that this man led the nation (in college) with an average of 49 yards per punt," LeBeau said. "If someone had been kind enough to tell me he was going to kick that way, I would have not done what I did. After the fact, I wouldn't do it."
LeBeau had high praise for Kitna's seamless performance for 295 passing yards and two touchdowns under his most pressure all season to jack his passer rating to 86.9, less than a point behind the Colts' Peyton Manning and the Broncos' Brian Griese in the AFC rankings.
It looks like the Bengals are going to stick with Kitna even though he makes $1.65 million next year if he plays 80 percent of the snaps. He's on pace to play in 79.7 percent. If they were ever going to pull him out of a game, it probably would have been Sunday when they went down 21 points with 6:13 left in the game.