8-11-03, 6:50 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. _ After talking to the man from "The New York Times," Marvin Lewis had a headline for his head coaching debut.
"It's all on tape," Lewis said Sunday here in the bowels of Giants Stadium. "Now we know."
What Lewis knew and what everyone else now knows is this isn't going to fairy tale ride back to the top for the Bengals and their rookie head coach. There is work to be done.
"He wasn't happy with how we played and he let us know it," said defensive end Justin Smith. "But he said we've got it on tape now. We've got a benchmark on where we are and where we have to go. We're going to be going back to work."
The 28-13 loss to the Jets left some disturbing fingerprints from last season in a game not helped by a steady rain that sometimes turned into a downpour:
He stressed no pre-snap and post-snap penalties, but his two new defensive linemen, John Thornton and Duane Clemons, picked up 15-yard penalties for over-enthusiastic play.
"That's not the way I wanted to look. We don't want to play as poorly as we did," Lewis said. "We made a lot of the mistakes we haven't been making. It does give it legitimacy. We can go back and say, 'This is how we fix it.' Now we get to go back and let's fix it . . .It was raining, but there was a rainbow. We'll fix it."
If Lewis made Norman Vincent Peale read like a cynic, it's because he did. Plus, there was saw positive fodder. His defense did give him a stellar effort, allowing just 155 yards and 2.5 yards per rush while coming up with three sacks and two turnovers. The offensive line didn't allow a sack, rookie quarterback Carson Palmer led two touchdown drives, and the rookie backfield of running back Ray Jackson and fullback Jeremi Johnson played well.
"We can fix it," Lewis said. "Our defense handled itself fairly well in adverse situations. We have to realize we're not going to trick people as football team."
There were explanations for Harris' fumbles that cost them four points and quarterback Jon Kitna's fumble that set up the first Jets' touchdown and was the game's only score for three quarters. But Lewis didn't want to hear them.
"What guys say after the fact doesn't really matter much," Lewis said. "We're paid to make plays. It doesn't matter what they say after the play."
On the third play of the game, Kitna lost the snap from Mike Goff, the transplanted guard making his first start at center. Goff told Kitna he was making a change on a call at the line and was late getting the ball up to him. The Jets' Jason Ferguson fell on the ball at the Cincinnati 39 and they scored nine plays later on running back Lamont Jordan's one-yard run.
Harris couldn't handle the snap on a 38-yard field-goal try in the second quarter and on a point-after at the end of the game, but to his defense it was a miserable day to catch the ball because it was waterlogged all day.
"That doesn't matter. If it's got oil all over it, I still have to catch it," Harris said. "I think what happened is that after the first one I started to think about it and you can't do that."
That is exactly what Lewis is trying to exorcise for a team with the M.O. of you don't have to beat them because they always beat themselves with mental and physical mistakes.
"We can't let things happen in the negative affect the next play," Lewis said. "We dropped two snaps. You can't have that. We're going to look at our options there."
Poor punting also dogged the Bengals on this non-punting day. Harris, the incumbent, averaged just 34.5 yards on four and his low-liner got returned 32 yards to set up the Jets' second touchdown. He alternated with Travis Dorsch, and Dorsch hit a 28-yarder as well as put one in the end zone.
But it was the penalties that disappointed Lewis the most on special teams, not "the decisions."
He was encouraged by his defense, which responded to some short fields.
Middle linebacker Kevin Hardy intercepted backup Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde at the Bengals 21, and Clemons forced another turnover late in the half when he sacked rookie quarterback Brooks Bollinger and forced a fumble recovered by linebacker Riall Johnson at the Bengals 29. Plus, Justin Smith stuffed the Jets on third and fourth downs with a yard to go for the first from his own 48.
"This was a good start for us," Hardy said. "The Jets are a physical, good team that can run the ball well, and for the most part we didn't give them very much."
They didn't play perennial Pro Bowl running back Curtis Martin, but the Bengals stuffed everyone else for 86 yards on 35 carries. Smith said he liked what his team did against the run because it reflected gap control.
"It shows we trust each other and that we know we're going to be where we're supposed to be," Smith said. "On that first drive, they scored when they went for it on fourth-and-three (from the Bengals' 28). They got it, but there's no way they go for that in the regular season.
Lewis had one major problem with the defense, and it was on quarterback Chad Pennington's 21-yard throw to a wide-open Santana Moss at the four-yard line on that first drive.
"They got a pass on us over the middle in man-to-man," said Lewis on what looked like a lack of communication because it appeared Moss was working against a zone.
But Lewis did like the play of tight ends Tony Stewart (four catches) and Reggie Kelly, fullback Jeremi Johnson, and rookie cornerback Terrell Roberts' 50-yard kickoff return. He also like Palmer's resiliency when he threw his first touchdown pass after throwing back-to-back interceptions for touchdowns.
"Not really all his fault," Lewis said. "He'll hang in there. He's been through this before."
The Bengals downplayed the importance of the first pre-season game. They seemed to say see what they do in the next three before the Sept. 7 opener. Or, as Kitna said, "I'm not panicking."
"Remember, the Jets had already played a game," Riall Johnson said. "The biggest improvement is always from your first game to your second game."
The first offensive line had trouble finding some running room when the Bengals finished with the first quarter with six yards on six carries that included two negative runs.
"We just didn't get it going," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "It's early, but I could sit here and ramble and tell you why. . .I'm going to let Coach Lewis look at the tape and tell you all."
Anderson doesn't have to worry about that.
"We're learning," Lewis said. "We're learning how to travel, how to come off the field, how to be on the sidelines. We're learning and we're going to keep working at it."