1-7-01, 2:25 p.m.
Updated: 1-8-02, 1:15 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Dick LeBeau who met the end-of-season media Monday isn't the same Dick LeBeau who met them last year.
The guy who used to be the courtly history professor came out more like the combative guest lecturer defending his best-selling book.
No more ivory towers. He has been through the real world as a NFL coach for the first time. From the offseason, through minicamp, training camp, four pre-season games, and 16 regular-season games and there is a certain hardness that a 6-10 season brings to a coach.
"That's a good question. It's not original, but it's a good question," he said to one scribe.
"Thanks for reminding me. I didn't know that," he said to another who brought up that the Bengals haven't had a winning record since 1990.
"Is that the end of the question?" he broke in on a radio man who asked about a rather involved scenario.
But LeBeau is smart enough to grow. He knows he's not the same coach who took over for Bruce Coslet 29 games ago. He's more experienced. And thanks to LeBeau, this isn't the same shell-shocked team afraid of success that he took under his wing the morning of Sept. 24, 2000.
On Monday, LeBeau talked about changing some of the things he'll do next year around the players and coaches. He wants to become more involved. He wouldn't get specific, but he indicated it might be good if he waved the head coach flag a little bit more.
"I'm going to get more involved in some aspects," LeBeau said. "I think it helps that the coach is around a little bit. I know I'm on the right path. We're just looking for the best way to do it."
To LeBeau's credit, he's looking for ways to improve himself. Just like the fans, he's perplexed at the ups-and-downs of a team that can look so bad in one quarter and look so good in the next.
Asked if there is enough discipline, LeBeau said, "It starts with me if there isn't. I hope I will grow as a head coach and learn from my experience. All teams have to have discipline. Until you establish yourself as a consistent winning team, you can always improve in those areas."
Improvement was the crux of Monday's season wrap as LeBeau and Bengals President Mike Brown defended keeping a staff that except for a different head coach and offensive coordinator, is 14-34 since 1999.
Asked if the players would wonder why there were no changes with the coaches, LeBeau said, "No. Their job is to play football. Our job is to coach. We'll put every waking hour that we have into being better coaches. If they put every waking hour that they have into being better players, we'll get where want to get."
And to be fair to LeBeau, if he was defensive Monday it was because the media came out on the offensive in questioning the Bengals' commitment to winning and comfort with losing.
All but one coach returned for the 2002 season after the resignation of safeties coach Ray Horton.
The club is also waiting word from Stanford, where running backs coach Jim Anderson spent Monday interviewing for the head coaching job.
The Cardinal reportedly also interviewed on Monday former Redskins head coach and current Chargers offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Also in the mix are former Chargers head coach Mike Riley and University of Florida passing game coordinator Buddy Teevens. Riley is also talking to Indiana and Turner is supposed to sit down and talk to the Chargers about the top job.
LeBeau said Anderson would return if he didn't get the job. He said no decision has been made if a
safeties coach is to replace Horton or if cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle is to coach the secondary. The Bengals finished ninth in NFL defense, their highest ranking since 1989, and some of the credit went to coordinator Mark Duffner's decision to split the coaching in the secondary for this season.
"I thought that the attention to detail and the position specific skills that could be taught particularly in the individual and the teamwork," LeBeau said. "You had one guy watching, one guy here, one guy there, and really I thought our corners and safeties improved as this season went along. It doesn't mean that we will do that, but I do like the chemistry that we had there this year."
Horton, the Bengals' second-round draft pick in 1983, played on the 1988 Super Bowl team and coached the last five years with the club. He reportedly wasn't pleased with the divided duties after four years as the secondary coach. Plus, he's got a connection with Houston General Manger Charley Casserly, his boss when he coached in Washington.
Horton politely declined comment, but said he was interested in still coaching in the NFL.
"You could tell Ray wasn't happy here," said strong safety JoJuan Armour. "They try to hide it from us, but there was a sense he wasn't happy and I guess it's time for him to move on."
Brown said the decision to keep the staff intact came after constant consultation with LeBeau.
"We talked at least two dozen times about it," Brown said. "If Dick had been insistent on some things, then I think something would have been done. But we were pretty much in agreement with how it came out."
Brown again refuted the "Wizard of Oz," perception the public has of him as the man who stands behind the curtain commanding the coach what to do.
"I'm more like a traffic cop than the Wizard of Oz," Brown said. "These guys have input and I listen and take that into heavy consideration and rarely go against them."
Apparently, neither Brown nor LeBeau were upset enough with some of the coaches manning the positions that lacked consistent production on offense and special teams.
LeBeau agreed that he had daily input with the staff decision and that, "I've very happy with how," the staff is shaped for next year.
Both men pointed to the dramatic turnaround of the defense and the improved offensive statistics this year over last year as signs the Bengals are headed in the right direction despite a seven-game losing streak in which they scored just 57 points.
The Bengals set a team a record with 48 sacks and allowed the fourth fewest sacks ever with 28 in a season quarterback Jon Kitna threw a team-record 581 passes.
"I was more proud and pleased with that statistic than any," LeBeau said. "We threw 70 balls against the second-leading sack team in the league two weeks ago (against Pittsburgh) and last week we threw 50 or so (against Tennessee). Everyone talks about their ends and how they've got the most sacks in the last 10 years and yet they got to our guy twice against Pittsburgh and once yesterday.
"The pass protection has been solid. We have a top running back. Our defense is a top 10 defense. We've got a lot of the pieces of the puzzle in place."
Last season, LeBeau took over a team that opened the season at 0-3 by a combined 74-7. This is a team that in the past month lost by a total of four points to playoff teams Tampa Bay and the Jets before beating the AFC's top seed in the Steelers.
Brown continued to say Monday he's not looking to make scapegoats of the coaches.
"There are people who are going to criticize me for it," Brown said. "But I'm just not going to fire somebody because of public pressure. These guys work hard, they work long hours and they know what they're doing."
Special teams coach Al Roberts heads into his sixth season with the Bengals despite an inconsistent kicking game and coverage work. But Brown remembered firing Frank Gansz "about 20 years ago," and Mike Stock "about 10 years ago," and, "both of those guys are still in the league.
"So much can go wrong with special teams," Brown said. "Every time you put a special team on the field, it's a roll of the dice. People make plays. People break down and I don't think that is fully the fault of the special teams coach."
Brown said the club needs to work on its punting, but he also said Nick Harris' ability to put punts inside the 20-yard line has made it better. He does want to see a better return and coverage game. He praised Roberts for teaching kicker Neil Rackers the pop-up onside kick the Bengals recovered twice this season and led to the win against Pittsburgh two weeks ago.
"Our field is the hardest to kick on in the National Football League," said Brown of Rackers' field-goal struggles. "Other guys come in here and don't do any better."
Brown is pleased with how the offense amassed nearly 1,000 yards in the last two gams. Asked if that was a factor in the re-hiring, LeBeau said, "It didn't hurt."
Wide receivers coach Steve Mooshagian also took some heat during the year when his young players hit a big-time drought in the seven-game losing streak. They went 26 straight quarters without a touchdown catch and four straight games without a completed pass play of 20 yards. But they had 11 in the last two games and 33 for the season after just 16 plus-20 catches all last year.
"We had a new system and a lot of young players," Brown said. "I think the offensive guys deserve a chance to have another run at it."
How young are Mooshagian's guys? Left tackle John Jackson played in his 203rd game Sunday. His six receivers went into the game with a combined total of 214.
"You've got the same six guys coming back and the same coach and that's going to help," Mooshagian said. "I think these guys showed here in the last two games what they can do and they'll only get better."
Wide receiver Peter Warrick has complained about playing in the slot, but Mooshagian thinks much of that came from frustration.
"After 15 catches in the last two games, he's probably feeling better," Mooshagian said. "We're going to look at everything with a post-season study to see what these guys do best. I think Pete is a real good guy I the slot. We'll see what happens."
Asked why fans should have hope for next season after years of fast finishes, LeBeau emphasized the win over the Steelers.
"I wish we were that we had time left this year. That's why the last two games, I think, were very important to all of us," LeBeau said. "To see the productivity of the offense when we click and when we're in time and what we can do when we stay together, to see our team rally and win against formidable opponents.
" Why do I think the Pittsburgh game was very important for this franchise? This is a team that was playing for the home-field advantage. So, they were definitely giving us their best. We played a very good team and we defeated them. It happened at the end of the year where technically, we were not playing for the home field advantage, we were not playing for the playoffs. We were playing to get better. We still have some work to do. I don't want to sugarcoat that. The difference between where we need to get and where we are has definitely narrowed."