After six weeks to reflect on his first full season as head coach and six weeks before he opens off-season workouts April 1, Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau sat down with Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. **
HOBSON:** The thinking around here seems to be no matter what happens in the offseason, the team should be flat out better just because it's the second full year for you and the offensive system.
LEBEAU: I think that should be true. If we can take our football and begin where we were at the end of 2001 as a base and continue to grow as we did in 2001, I think we can reach our goals collectively. **
HOBSON:** In 2002?
HOBSON: The goal would be the playoffs? **
HOBSON:** You think you can reach them?
LEBEAU: I definitely not only think, I believe it with all my heart. **
HOBSON: That you will make the playoffs?
LEBEAU:I think we will.
HOBSON:That's a pretty bold statement.
LEBEAU:I don't want our players having their sights set with anything less and I think it would be inappropriate for the head coach to reflect anything less than that is our goal.
HOBSON:I guess you think it's realistic because how last year ended.
LEBEAU:** We exhibited fine growth overall, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. We played against some very good defenses and in those last two games, you talk about total yardage, making plays at the end of ballgames with one in overtime, one in crunch time. Getting us over the hump to win those close games at the end. I think it's a very doable thing.
HOBSON: When we talked at the end of the season, you mentioned you wanted to become a little more involved with the players in certain situations. **
LEBEAU:** I think I will. I like coaching. I enjoy coaching. I understand you have to delegate in this position, but nonetheless I think I will be a little more involved in position groups from time to time.
HOBSON: I remember you walking around the halls after the first minicamp meeting last year, when you broke them into offense and defense, and how you felt funny because for 42 years you had been in the meeting. Since then, I had the sense you wanted to be in there digging. **
LEBEAU:**All coaches are coaches first. Teachers first. I still want to teach. The simple truth is the description of this job is more demanding. After having a year to better understand the job, I'll be able to delegate a little more time to those areas. My background is in defense, but I feel more comfortable with the offense now being around Coach (Bob) Bratkowski this year and what we're trying to do there. I'll be more comfortable making my comments on that side of the ball.
HOBSON: So you might swing by a position meeting more than you might have been doing? **
LEBEAU:I think that's accurate. There's a certain amount of delegating responsibilities, which I firmly believe in. But I also think I understand more in that area and I can be a more hands-on person.
HOBSON:I guess when the head man says something, it carries a little more extra.
LEBEAU:As long as the head man isn't always saying something. As long as his timing is correct, his comments are salient, and it's pertinent to what is going on and he is knowledgeable in his comments. Then, yes, it can be an added impact. To what extent I'm going to go in and take over this meeting or that meeting, I don't have it planned out. I won't do that, but I think I'll be more visible in the classroom situation than I have been.
HOBSON:** All we've been hearing about lately is quarterbacks. The only guy who hasn't been mentioned playing for you next year is Johnny U.
LEBEAU: Johnny U. would be good. **
HOBSON:What's new with that?
LEBEAU:I want to have a better relationship with our quarterbacks. That's mostly on me. Again, in an effort to delegate responsibility, I wanted to make sure with all of our staff in our first year together had a chance to feel a moving part of what we were doing. But I do want to be a little more involved with them individually.
HOBSON:** It looks as if you guys are looking at bringing in a new quarterback.
LEBEAU: We're looking at all areas to improve our football team and we certainly will look at improving the production at the quarterback position who ever that player may be.
HOBSON: Whether he's here already or a guy from outside?
LEBEAU: We think if we would produce like we did in the last two games, we're a pretty good team and there's no reason why we can't do that regardless of who that player may be.
HOBSON: If you had just average play out of that spot, you would have had a real shot at going to the playoffs. **
LEBEAU:** I think that's a little unfair. It was a new year for all of us. Many times the quarterback receives more blame and more credit when it is actually more of a reflection of where we are as an offense. It was a brand new offense, a lot of young receivers, and, in many instances, it was new concepts, new theories, certainly a new head coach.
It was reasonable to assume there should be a growth period in there. We wish we would have shown that growth a little sooner, but we progressed to a very positive point and that's where our starting point should be for this year. **
HOBSON:It was interesting the way the wide receivers responded in the last two games. That came after that public bloodletting in Baltimore in which they were pretty much put on notice.
LEBEAU:** Whatever the reason, we were productive in the passing game the last two weeks of the season and they showed they were capable of doing it. Now instead of a series of words and phrases from a coach, I can put it on video and show it on the screen and say this is what you have to do. That's going to be helpful going into this season.
HOBSON: Receivers like Danny Farmer and T.J. Houshmandzadeh really came on for you. Do you still see Darnay Scott and Peter Warrick as the starters there?
LEBEAU: I do. I think Darnay is one of the reasons we were more productive in the last two games. He was very evident. He caught the ball well, he made a lot of plays. Peter caught 70 balls and that's solid, but we want to get him up field a little more and get him the ball more.
HOBSON: He only had one touchdown.
LEBEAU: Obviously that's not enough, but we have to do that as an entire offense. Score more touchdowns. More points. I see those guys as leading contributors, but I see us using some of the younger players more frequently and seeing if we can't keep that production growing. **
HOBSON:** So we'll see Farmer and T.J more?
LEBEAU: Those two guys played well at the end of the year and I thought Ron Dugans played steady ball all year. We're very, very excited about Chad Johnson's growth potential. Before he was injured, he was starting to really impact the game. Then the (broken collarbone) set him back. We're going to have him in his second year. We think we're going to be more experienced beyond our years there because all these players have some rather extended playing time. **
HOBSON:Are you worried about the lack of experience at tight end?
LEBEAU:That's an area that certainly requires our attention, but I don't know if worry is the proper word for it. It is a position we have to address. We are confident we have a good player in Sean Brewer. That remains to be seen. We were pleased with what we saw from Nick Williams as he became an H-Back who could either line up in the backfield or shift around and the problems that might cause the opposing defense is attractive to us. We're hopeful Tony McGee will make a complete recovery (from arthroscopic knee surgery) and give us a couple more years of real solid veteran leadership at that position. I do understand it is a pretty good year for tight ends in the draft and we'll be looking at that position.
HOBSON:You've got to get improvement from Neil Rackers on field goals, right?
LEBEAU:We need to be at where NFL kickers are and most of those guys are kicking at 70 percent. That's where we want to be.
HOBSON:So he'll have to do better in training camp and in the pre-season games than he did last year (when he was about 60 percent).
LEBEAU:All of us have to get better. All of us have to get better because we were below playoff-level football.
HOBSON:Neil will have competition in camp?
LEBEAU:* No question about that.*
HOBSON:It wasn't so much the misses, but there were a lot of times you passed up those field goals between 39 and 45 yards that cost points.
LEBEAU:** A lot of it was the situation in the game, the conditions. (Several times) we had the wind advantage and our defense was playing real well and I just thought that was the prudent play and our punter was very good at putting the ball inside the 20. We'd have a good chance of getting field position for our offense as opposed to the percentages that we were hitting the long field goal. Then they're starting around our 45. But those games we did that in, we were victorious, so I defend what we did as correct.
HOBSON: If you had a 70-percent kicker, then would you probably go for the long field goal 70 percent of the time?
LEBEAU: The game conditions would dictate it, but what you're always going to do is try and play the percentages in all the things you do as a coach. **
HOBSON:The defense is back pretty much intact and that has to be the strength of this team with Corey Dillon.
LEBEAU:* We want to build on it. We certainly made a dramatic improvement last season, particularly after the bye week. We were a strong defense the last half of the season and we're looking to improve from ninth in the league to on down to the top five this year.*
HOBSON:If you lose Reinard Wilson and his nine sacks as a rush end in free agency, can you get enough from Steve Foley, Adrian Ross and Canute Curtis at that spot to keep the pass rush together?
LEBEAU:I think we have a good nucleus of pass rushers. I think Reinard had a good season. You can't ignore that he had nine sacks. If we do lose Reinard, we'll look to replace him, possibly with a young pass rusher from the draft. We think we got a very good one in Justin Smith last year and we think some of the things we do will help all of our players in the pass rush. Nonetheless, the sack total is under Reinard's column and if we do lose him, it is something we'll have to address.
HOBSON:I know you're trying to sign your only free-agent starter, cornerback Artrell Hawkins. But it's not a lock you will take a cornerback with the 10th pick in the draft.
LEBEAU:There's some good defensive linemen and there's a chance there'll be an offensive lineman we like that will still be available. There's at least one safety (Oklahoma's Roy Williams) who is supposed to be an impact-type guy. We've got some good flexibility with that pick.
HOBSON:** You're probably looking for a safety in the first three rounds.
LEBEAU: We need a safety in all probability. Chris Carter is an unrestricted free agent, Darryl Williams is in his 30s and is a good veteran player and two younger guys in Cory (Hall) and JoJuan (Armour), but that's only four and we're looking to add to the roster. **
HOBSON:It looks like your new safeties coach, Darren Perry, can still play free safety.
LEBEAU:If we could set the clock back five years. I know he would know all the calls, that's for sure.
HOBSON:The fact he played for you in Pittsburgh and knows this system inside and out appears to be what got him the job even though he's never coached.
LEBEAU:** In this profession, you tend to involve yourself with people who know your system, who you have personal experience with in coaching. Darren was literally a coach on the field. He was very unusual from the standpoint you rarely had to tell him anything twice. He got things quickly and those kinds of people make wonderful teachers because they understand the subject matter. As I told Darren, the coaching procedure, particularly when you've been a player, is nothing more than teaching what you already know to be so. Through the things you learn from your playing experience.
He was always a student of the game. He never missed a meeting. He was never late for a meeting. He was never late for a formation. In all my years of coaching, I've never had a guy as bright-eyed and alert. He is as intelligent as any player I've ever coached. **
HOBSON:** When you retired from playing after the 1972 season and went right to the Eagles as a special teams coach, you must have heard people wondering how they could give that job to a guy who had never coached before.
LEBEAU: I think that happens to all of us in our first job. When you went out and got your first writing job, they probably said, "Hell, you never wrote a column before," and you hadn't.
I did have the advantage of 14 years of field experience and Darren has the advantage of nine years of field experience. I think it goes hand in hand. I'm not guessing with Darren. I got to see him interact with young players trying to learn, (helping them) short cutting their learning process. I'm sure he'll be a fine coach.
HOBSON: The one thing you have in common with your new offensive assistant, Bob Surace, is you both worked for Forrest Gregg. I know he's a guy you admire.
LEBEAU: I think everybody who knows him admires Coach Gregg. For his integrity and honesty. He really sort of embodies what a football coach ought to be.
HOBSON: There are similarities with you two. Both of you are known as tough, blunt guys who were great players in the '50s and '60s who play well in a locker room of modern players.
LEBEAU: That would be a compliment to me. I know that Forrest was a great player and a very successful coach. He's won a lot more games than me, but we're working to change that.
HOBSON: In 1978, the Bengals went 4-12. In 1979, they went 4-12. In 1980, Forrest's first year as coach, they went 6-10. The next year, 1981, they went to the Super Bowl. In 1999, the Bengals went 4-12. In 2000, they went 4-12. In their first full year under Dick LeBeau, they went 6-10. Do you believe in numbers? **
LEBEAU:** I like where we are in that scenario, at least. We're sure going to do our best to make that equation balance out. That sounds pretty good.