12-30-02, 9 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals are in the market for their ninth head coach after not retaining Dick LeBeau following the worst season in franchise history.
Bengals President Mike Brown informed LeBeau in their weekly Monday morning meeting that his 45-game run is over, about 12 hours after the club returned from the 27-9 loss in Buffalo that ended the season at 2-14 in the only AFC game with no playoff consequences.
"I got the job, I kept it for three years, and lost the job," said LeBeau, who left Paul Brown Stadium after making a statement for a press release. "In between, I worked as hard as I could. End of statement. End of story."
With intense public pressure to re-organize a franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs in a dozen seasons, Brown gave no indication he plans to replace himself with a general manager. And there were no immediate signs about the fate of LeBeau's 15 assistants, the majority of which don't have deals for the future. Brown did say in a statement that his team needs to go "in a different direction," for next season.
It's believed that Brown plans to adhere to NFL guidelines and interview a minority candidate, with published speculation centering on Redskins defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis and former Vikings head coach Dennis Green. If he follows true to the club's previous hires, Brown will interview some current offensive coordinators in the NFL with Jaguars head coach Tom Coughlin, reportedly to be fired today, already mentioned in one broadcast report Sunday as a possible candidate.
LeBeau, 65, the London, Ohio born and Ohio State bred Pro Bowl cornerback, has coached for the Bengals during all but five of the past 23 seasons as a secondary coach and defensive coordinator as well as a head coach. He finished his first stint
as a head man at 12-33. He began his term suddenly in the chaos of Bruce Coslet's resignation after the third game of the 2000 season in becoming the NFL's oldest rookie head coach since the 1970 merger.
LeBeau won praise for his calm, old-school handling of the 0-3 crisis and won a two-year contract with what is believed to be an option year at the end of a season he led the Bengals to a 4-9 finish.
But since LeBeau got the Bengals off to a 4-3 start last season, the club has lost 21 of the last 25 games in a stretch plagued with mental errors, explosive turnovers on offense, weekly gaffes on special teams, and an inconsistent defense as former Bengals blasted the team for its lack of conditioning and intensity. They gave up 456 points, four off the franchise-high in 1999, but 65 points came with the defense not on the field.
"The 2002 season was an acutely disappointing one for everyone in the Bengals organization, and for our fans," Brown said in a statement. "I credit Coach LeBeau and his staff for their hard work and perseverance. They held the team together, in the face of great difficulty. We remained competitive in games long after our elimination from playoff contention, and our statistics on a yardage basis, normally indicative of a team's performance, were noticeably better than the win-loss record.
"But the fact is, we produced only two victories, and a new direction is needed for 2003. We will hire a talented head coach who will bring our squad renewed confidence and enthusiasm. As an organization, we look forward to the challenge of rewarding our fans with a winning team."
After the club got off to a horrendous 0-4 start this season in which the Bengals were outscored, 119-23, LeBeau admitted his training camp quarterback derby might not have been the way to go.
Free-agent Gus Frerotte said he didn't get enough snaps to get ready for the season even though he was named the Opening Day starter and got benched in the second quarter of the third game. Jon Kitna bristled at being passed over even though he started 15 games in 2001 and racked up 751 passing yards in the last two games.
And No. 3 quarterback Akili Smith got the most snaps in the pre-season games, but the least in the regular season when LeBeau turned to Kitna after Smith's first and only start in the fourth game of the season, a 35-7 loss to Tampa Bay.
Kitna responded with the best stretch of his career on a 79.1 passer rating and one the team's best completion percentages in the past 20 seasons at 62.2.
But goal-line failures, 65 points scored off special teams and turnovers (nine kick, punt and interception returns for touchdowns and a safety), and a defense ranked near the bottom of the NFL all season against the run doomed the Bengals to a 2-10 record under Kitna and led to LeBeau's dismissal.
Also mentioned in published reports as a possible candidate is Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. The 41-year-old Mularkey, a former NFL tight end for nine seasons, is an intriguing possibility. He has steered the Steelers to the playoffs with two different quarterbacks in the past two seasons and is a close friend of Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. Late in the season, Brown spoke about the importance of keeping offensive continuity.