9-12-03, 3:10 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The weirdest thing Bengals middle linebacker Kevin Hardy ever saw in Oakland's Coliseum is the guy wearing shoulder pads with big, long spikes sticking out of them.
"I mean it's like Halloween out there," Hardy said this week as the Bengals go trick-or treating at Network Associates Coliseum. "Grown men dressed like kids."
The Bengals head to California in the middle of the state's runoff campaign, but they have been run out of there like Gray Davis in their last nine games in the Golden State. They've never won in their history in Oakland with the 0-8 skein starting in the first year of the franchise.
Of course, any Bengals' road trip of late has a good chance of becoming a cross between "Halloween," and "Carrie." The frightening numbers are these:
The Bengals have the NFL's worst road record since 1993 at 16-64, have won four road games in the last three seasons, and last won a September road game in 1998.
"Other teams do it," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "Other teams go on the road and win. It's not like we're trying to do the impossible."
Enter the King of the Road. New Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has set a new tone with everything else, why not road trips? It's
believed the Bengals are making their first Friday trip with this junket, something the club will repeat later in the season for games at Arizona and San Diego.
Anderson: "It's jut another move where he's bringing us up-to-date to the rest of the league."
"Most teams do it and it's a good move. You get used to the time change and you have time to test and recover from the long flight," said defensive tackle John Thornton, who made the Friday trip last year with the Titans to Oakland.
That's one of the reasons. Remember, Lewis was part of a Baltimore team that won two playoff road games on the way to the Super Bowl in 2000, including winning the AFC championship in Oakland.
"It's just a stadium with a bunch of guys with their faces painted," said a smiling Lewis, who acknowledged the crowd might remember him. "Guy says, 'Coach can I have your autograph?' and he's wearing a mask."
But he is quite serious about his itinerary.
"Number one, you get acclimated to the time of the game. We get an opportunity to go over to the stadium," Lewis said. "We get a chance to go out on the field on Saturday, so guys can check their shoes. We have to play on the (baseball) infield this early in the year, so you have both surfaces to deal with. There is an advantage. The players spend time with their family on Friday evening, and get back and do football Saturday morning. We give them a little time in the afternoon, and then focus on football as we go through Saturday night. I think it is a good opportunity for guys to rest."
When Anderson talks about teams that do it, he is taking about the Jacksonville teams for which Hardy once played. They upset Denver on the road in the playoffs, and Hardy says it stems from the same qualities that make winners.
"It's a focus and a concentration. That's a big part of it," Hardy said. "There are so many distractions. Guys have family all over the country, and when you come in they want to go to dinner and all that. You have to take the extra step to focus in on what you're doing."
Lewis has stepped up hotel security, but his biggest hit with the players may be allowing them to sit in first class on the plane. Once reserved for Bengals' staff, Lewis and the Brown family are now joined by the players who have the most NFL seniority.
"That's a great thing. It sends a good message to the players," said quarterback Jon Kitna. "I don't have enough time in yet, but if I did, I'd give my seat to a lineman. As much as I love flying first class, it's tough sitting in an airplane for those big guys."
Center Rich Braham, who has been a Bengal longer than anybody, certainly appreciates it.
"Oh yeah, you're up there with the head coach and the owners, that's great," Braham said. "You finally have some room to stretch out."
Will it help?
What probably means more is that guys like Lewis and Kitna have gone to Oakland and won, again proving Anderson's point that they aren't trying to split the atom on the road. In fact, Kitna won his first NFL start in the heart of Raider Nation on Dec. 14, 1997, engineering a 22-21 comeback after Seattle fell behind, 21-3.
"There's no place like it in the league. The fans take pride in being as crazy as they can, and as rowdy as they can," Kitna said. " They are there five hours before the game, and a couple of hours after the game. You have to go out and experience it in pre-game and see what it is, then come back in and get refocused and ready to go. The thing about them is, if something goes wrong for you while you are there, then that really gets them going."
So Lewis' idea on the road is simple.
Be so prepared, let nothing much go wrong.
MATCHUPS: Bengals FS Mark Roman is faced with staring down Raiders QB Rich Gannon, last year's NFL MVP. Bengals OLBs Brian Simmons and Adrian Ross have to make sure Raiders RB Charlie Garner doesn't hurt them on the edge like Clinton Portis did. Bengals DE Justin Smith pits his speed against the girth of 300-pound Raiders left tackle Barry Sims. Bengals CB Tory James goes against his old friends, specifically Raiders WRs Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, but the key guy in the matchup might not even be on the field.
Bengals C Rich Braham gets his first start of the season against two formidable run-stuffing veterans in Raiders DTs Dana Stubblefield and John Parrella. Bengals TE Matt Schobel might be matched up in the passing game against Raiders OLB Bill Romanowski. Bengals WRs Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick take their shorts downfield against Raiders CBs Charles Woodson and Terrance Shaw.
ROMAN VS. GANNON _ ** Word is the Raiders' massive offensive line and their penchant for throwing nearly every down makes them vulnerable to the blitz. And no doubt Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis did a lot of blitzing when his Ravens came into the Black Hole on Jan. 14, 2001 to force five turnovers and hold the NFL's No. 1 rush offense to 24 yards to emerge with the AFC title.
But that was Rod Woodson he was blitzing with at free safety and Woodson plays for the Raiders now, except not Sunday because of knee surgery, and Gannon is pulling a trigger that last year led the NFL in total offense and passing.
The Bengals would like to get pressure on Gannon, but they're also aware what he can do out of the pocket despite his 38 years. Roman has to be aware of Gannon's ability to run, as well as his knack at finding receivers at the last possible instant. Roman, or any of the other blitzers, have to make sure they get there because Gannon always seems to find somebody.
Plus, Roman is going to have to direct some traffic in the middle. Raiders WR Jerry Porter is out, but WRs Jerry Rice and Tim Brown can still go vertical on you. Still, they do a lot of their damage now on crossing routes.
Roman is coming off a good game with an interception, and his other pass defensed came on a diving knock-away of a pass. **
SIMMONS, ROSS VS. GARNER:Simmons said the Bengals' primary problem against Portis was their inability to get people to the edge and wall off the perimeter. The defense needs that force guy who can stretch the play outside and turn it back into the other 10 players. They better keep an eye on Garner, and he showed he doesn't have to get to the outside. He popped through a seam against the Titans down the middle in the passing game last Sunday night for a 46-yard scoot-and score touchdown.
SMITH VS. SIMS:** Like Lincoln Kennedy on the other side, Sims is no athletic speed demon. But he's going to block you and when he does, he envelops you. The Raiders only got sacked 36 times last season, which was the AFC average. It's a matchup you'd like to think Smith can win because of the speed factor and because he's the fourth pick in the draft going against an undrafted guy. Still, Sims has had a nice career after rebounding from a knee injury in the Hula Bowl.
If the Bengals are going to get by the wall, they're going to have to rely on speed and avoidability. **
JAMES VS. RICE, BROWN:** James played the last three seasons in Oakland and worked his way into the starting lineup last year in the Raiders' AFC championship season. In his first game as a Bengal, he picked off the 19th pass of his career, which would put him fifth on the Bengals' all-time list, two more than Tommy Casanova.
But James has underplayed his return to the Black Hole at every turn. One thing not to underplay is the loss of injured wideout Jerry Porter. Not only did nine of his 51 catches last year go for touchdowns, but when he was on the field, Rice and Brown averaged 1.5 yards more per catch. The three healthy receivers behind Rice and Brown have 17 NFL catches among them. **
BRAHAM VS. STUBBLEFIELD, PARRELLA:The Raiders allowed the Titans 76 yards rushing last week with a scheme in which they just flat out attacked the center with who ever rotates in there with the two starters. Parrella and Stubblefield are both 11th-year vets who have been at the heart of good defenses for a long time, so it makes it an interesting return for Braham, whose demotion to backup guard lasted one week.
SCHOBEL VS. ROMANOWSKI:Schobel is coming off a big game with four catches for a career-high 97 yards ,the most yards by a Cincinnati tight end since Tony McGee's 109 eight years ago against the defunct Houston Oilers. Romanowski is still a man-eating beast against the run, but he is 37 and Schobel might be able to cause hjm some problems out in space.
JOHNSON, WARRICK VS. WOODSON, SHAW:** The Raiders' secondary is all banged up. Free safety Rod Woodson is out and his backup, Anthony Dorsett, is dinged. The No. 1 pick from last season, Miami cornerback Phillip Buchanon, hasn't been able to get on the field much because of some nagging injuries. But Charles Woodson is one of the best there is, and two of the Bengals' wideouts are rookies.
But it's a great challenge for the two veterans. The Raiders play pretty much one-on-one coverage and Johnson and Warrick will get some chances to make some big plays. They need them. Johnson's 41-yard touchdown catch is the only completion of 25 yards-plus to a wide receiver.
NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for Sunday's game in Oakland between the Bengals and Raiders, including 192 and 193. The first is the number of career touchdown catches for Raiders receiver Jerry Rice. The second is the number of touchdown catches combined by the Bengals' all-time top four of Carl Pickens (63), Isaac Curtis (53), Eddie Brown (41) and Cris Collinsworth (36). Darnay Scott is tied with Collinsworth at 36.
0 _ Bengals' defensive starters who started in the same spot in their last game in Oakland in 1998. Outside linebacker Brian Simmons played the middle that day.
2 _ Bengals' offensive starters who started in the same spot in their last game in Oakland in 1998: Running back Corey Dillon and right tackle Willie Anderson. Center Rich Braham started at left guard.
18.1 _ TV rating for last Sunday's Bengals-Broncos game, making it the top-rated program in the Cincinnati market for the week of Sept. 1-7
0-9 _ Bengals record in California games since last Golden State victory.
17 _ With Jerry Porter out, the number of combined NFL catches by the Raiders' 3-4-5 receivers.
24 _ Yards rushing by Oakland's NFL-leading run offense against Marvin Lewis' Raven defense in the 2000 AFC title game.
10-7-90 _ Date of last Bengals' victory in California, 34-31 in OT against the Rams.
490 _ Passing yards for Boomer Esiason in that victory in Los Angeles.
272 _ Passing yards combined by Jon Kitna and Neil O'Donnell in Bengals' last two California games.
40-29 _ Raiders' home record since moving back to Oakland in 1995, including playoffs.
15-49 _ Bengals' road record since 1995.
2 _ Touchdown receptions Raiders receiver Tm Brown needs to become fourth player in NFL history with 100 touchdown catches.
6 _ Touchdowns Brown has scored against the Bengals in seven games.
35 _ Combined years in the NFL of Raiders receivers Tim Brown and Jerry Rice.
41 _ Combined years in the NFL of the Bengals' 10 defensive backs.
59 – Bengals running back Corey Dillon's best yards rushing in two California appearances (against Oakland in 1998).
34 _ Rushing yards Dillon had in last week's opener.
34 _ Rushing yards the Raiders had in last week's 25-20 loss to Tennessee.