Life at 2-0

9-25-01, 7:40 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Andy Furman's Monday nights are packed again.

The Two Angry Guys aren't so angry.

The fans are saluting cornerback Rodney Heath at Kroger and strong safety Cory Hall while he's walking his dog, and there is complimentary champagne at Willie's Sports Café instead of people bubbling with resentment. Instead of 53 players, 53 cabs, the players are actually hanging together after years of just hanging out.

All the signs are there. The Bengals are 2-0 after their biggest victory in more than a decade and life is good as Cincinnati and the Bengals savor Sunday's 21-10 win over the Super Bowl champion Ravens.

More signs? Jack Brennan, the Bengals public relations director, said Monday that Marcus Allen of CBS's "NFL Today," and Greg Garber of ESPN's "Sunday Morning Countdown," are coming to Cincinnati this week for features.

"The place was packed. Wall-to-wall," said Furman, WLW-700 Radio's talkmaster after hosting the Bengals' weekly Monday night gathering at Rick's Grill in Fairfield.

"The biggest crowd I've seen in eight years. People are actually talking about if they can get by San Diego this week as the biggest obstacle, they can be 6-1 or 7-1."

Furman has been taking the pulse of Cincinnati sports fans since before the giddy Super Bowl days of 1988 and he says the vital signs in the fan base remind him of the Monday nights when there was always a crowd.

"The only negative call we got was from some moron complaining about Neil Rackers," said Furman of the Bengals kicker who missed all three of his field-goal tries against the Ravens. "Hey, they won the game. But it cuts both ways. (Tight end) Tony McGee came on with us and he was terrific. He stayed for an extra hour."

We're talking about a radio show that in the last few years that has resorted to bringing on sports writers to fill the void of players who had nothing left to say.

Richard Skinner and Tom Gamble, the Two Angry Guys who command the morning commute down the dial on Homer-1360 The Sports Animal, haven't had the chance to take a pulse as they head into their third year of the show during two 4-12 seasons.

"People are all wound up and some are actually talking about the Super Bowl," Skinner said. "There is still a long road to go, but the change is just so refreshing. It's been so negative at this time of year. People are usually already surly now because they're 0-2 or 1-3. People are so desperate, they'll hang on to anything for hope.

"After they beat New England, it was still, 'Let's see if it's still the same old Bengals.' But the win over Baltimore seems to have brought out the legitimate optimism," Skinner said.

Center Rich Braham has lived through four seasons of 3-13 or 4-12 since he arrived in 1994 and he was able to taste the fruits of victory Sunday night when Willie's management sent over a bottle of the bubbly. Maybe the best thing was that there were about 20 players there.

"There were wide receivers defensive linemen, offensive linemen," Braham said. "It was good to see. . .You always have your fair-

weather fans waiting to see if this is the regular old Bengals or are they for real?"

Braham figures it's the biggest impromptu team gathering since the days of quarterback Boomer Esiason in 1997. Esiason, that professor of team chemistry, always made sure the offense got together after a game. Even if it was a quick pizza and drinks at his house after a road game.

"When you win, you always ride a high," Braham said.

Braham is used to going out after a game and people saying, "I saw you play," and that was the end of the conversation. And after a loss, it's "What happened here? What happened there?"

Take Heath, who went grocery shopping after the game.

"There were people coming up to me who knew who I was and congratulating me. I was tripping," Heath said. "I can't speak for the more high-profile guys like (Takeo) Spikes, but that's about the first time that's happened.

"It was mainly the calls," said Heath, the Cincinnati native who grew up with Super Bowls and playoffs. "People kept calling and I was saying, 'Why are you so surprised we won?' We've got good fans. They're hungry for wins. When we win, they'll back you all the way. It's been a long time with the past image here, but a win over the Super Bowl champion. . ."

Skinner calls Bengals' fans "amazingly loyal," and while a few may have defected to Indianapolis or Cleveland, or maybe just become NFL fans, he thinks the club has a shot in the next month to fill Paul Brown Stadium.

"The great thing about these fans is they don't need much," Skinner said. "If they win a couple of more games, they've got a real chance to get big crowds for home games after the bye week for (December) games like Jacksonville and Tampa Bay. There's still skepticism, but it's nice to be able to break down games and analyze here and there instead of just saying, 'It's all bad.'"

Hall had a nice experience walking his dog in his Florence, Ky., neighborhood Sunday night.

"Usually, people just drive by and wave," Hall said. "But every car that drove by Sunday, stopped, rolled down their windows and talked. People came out of their houses. It was great."

Furman actually heard people comparing the Bengals to the '99 Rams' team that won the Super Bowl after a losing season in '98.

"New England was the skeptical win, but the win on Sunday has brought the people out," Furman said.

And all the other things that come with winning. WLW baseball legend Bill "Seg," Dennison brought down the house when he showed up at Rick's. And McGee invited (in the old days it would have been "challenged,") Furman down to practice Wednesday and for the first time in years, Furman plans to sit in on a Wednesday news conference.

On Monday night, the top stories at the bottom of the hour on WLW were fallout from the Sept. 11 attack, the trial of Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach and the Bengals savoring their win.

"No question it's good for the city," Furman said. "The city needs it."

All the signs are there.

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