Life at .500

10-23-01, 4:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

For all those Bengals' fans who spent Monday venting at water fountains, in e-mails and on the radio, there was only one person more upset than you.

If there's one thing that raises the ire of Bengals President Mike Brown, it's an uninspired effort at home. If there's one thing that makes him hotter than that, it's an uninspired effort in front of a full house. Take Sunday's 24-0 loss to the Bears before the first consecutive sell-out crowd in the dozen-game history of Paul Brown Stadium.

"It was a little bit of a heartbreak for us," Brown said. "We fought so hard to get back our fans. And then to go out there and lay the biggest, impossible egg imaginable. We just didn't expect that. It was a punch in the nose. Now we just have to regroup and fight our way back."

Brown and his team know they have two road games in the next three weeks (at Detroit and at Jacksonville sandwiched around a Nov. 4 bye) to get the faithful back before the next home game Nov. 18 against Tennessee.

But they are telling themselves it could be worse. In fact, it was worse.

"Last year at this time, we were biting our teeth just going through pure hell trying to get one win," said right tackle Willie Anderson of the 0-6 start. "We're not saying this 24-0 loss isn't a big thing. We let our fans down and ourselves down. We didn't give ourselves a chance to play.

"We're still going to be in contention," Anderson said. "Our goal was to be in it at the end of the season. Look at the AFC as a whole. There's

4-1, 4-2, 3-3. We're right in the middle of the pack. I don't think Brett Favre after losing last week is going to put (his) head down. I don't think the Colts are going to do that. Baltimore isn't going to do that. It's a mentally tough challenge this week."

In fact, Anderson suggests the Bengals have to change the way they go

about getting ready for games now that they are no longer doormats.

"Teams are not preparing for us like they use to prepare for the old Bengals," Anderson said. "It's not that way anymore. We're not (sneaking up) on teams. We're going to get their best. Chicago gave us their best effort. They saw the Cleveland film. They saw the film from the previous two games. They saw the defense has been playing well enough for us to win (most games). Teams are realizing that (they) have to worry about more than Takeo Spikes. There's Oliver Gibson and Brian Simmons. . .On offense, we have to beat people with more than Corey Dillon."

After losing focus so badly, look for the Bengals to have one of those back-to-basics weeks. Anderson is asking his teammates to remember that teams are watching film and devising ways to counter what the Bengals do. What little they couldn't handle against Cleveland, Anderson noticed the Bears ran things that gave the Bengals problems the week before.

"(We have) to do the little things to win this game," Anderson said. "We don't have a 500-yard aerial attack. We're a running football team. . .teams are going to blitz us and create havoc."

Brown is also riding the roller coaster of a team that is better, but shows tantalizing signs of being even better.

"The encouraging thing is we show improvement," Brown said. "The discouraging thing is we don't show consistency. That's the goal right now."

DILLON HEATED: If there is an example of how far the Bengals have come, it may have been in Monday's media period in the locker room. When the Bengals were losing nearly every week, scenes were fairly common and ho-hum.

But when running back Corey Dillon had a loud, animated conversation with a group of reporters Monday, it drew the attention of other players as the locker room stood still.

When someone told right tackle Willie Anderson, "This is like the old days," Anderson said, "Yeah, I was looking for some of the people who went through that. Stuff like that was always happening."

Dillon felt the media made too much of the fact he took himself out of the game with a little more than five minutes left. Frustration pent up in a game he had just 30 yards on 16 carries boiled when Dillon and Kitna failed to communicate on an incomplete first-down pass from the Bears 2.

"If I need a blow, I'm going to come out. I'm going to come out," Dillon said. "You're not going to dictate when I'm coming out of the game. You're not the head coach."

Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson said he is fine with what happened because it happens a few

times each game and is nothing out of the ordinary for a running back on a team that has several personnel groups and an effective backup running back who can catch the ball.

"A lot of runners will tell you when they need to come out," Anderson said. "And we've got Brandon Bennett and Curtis Keaton who are guys you can go to and we're paying them to do things, too. I have no problem with what happened."

Dillon feels since the much-publicized incident in Baltimore last season when he walked off the field in frustration after getting hit for a loss, people read too much into him checking out of a game. He said then he needed to regroup after taking a shot. On Monday, he said he needed a rest at the end of a 15-play drive and pointed out four straight passes were called.

"Everyone says it's a big problem and makes it something it isn't. The head coach doesn't have a problem with it," Dillon said. "You don't like it? So what? What are you going to do? What's the problem?"

Dillon and Kitna had a problem on the play, but both downplayed their animated discussion on the sidelines.

"Really, you're talking about a play that had nothing to do with how the game turned out," Kitna said. "Just about every play in this league, the conversation gets animated. . .It happens all the time, you just happened to see that one. It happens one out of every two or three plays."

Kitna said Dillon looks familiar because he's also competitive in the heat of the moment. He said they even had disagreements in the win over Cleveland, but could be seen embracing after the game.

"We hugged after this game, too," Kitna said. "He'd like to run the ball every play and I wouldn't mind passing it every play."

Team observers believe the volatile competitiveness that gets Dillon so frustrated is also the trait that makes him one of the NFL's top runners. Fullback Lorenzo Neal, who came to his defense in front of the reporters, saw it up close when he had dinner with Dillon Sunday night.

""You've got to realize, he wants to be more than just good," Neal said. "He doesn't want to go just 8-8. He wants the team to win it all. He's frustrated and we all have to help him out. Lorenzo Neal, the whole team has to get him going."

INJURY UPDATE: Tom Carter, the Bengals nickel cornerback, didn't play the bulk of the second half Sunday because his bruised knee had trouble responding on cuts. When Robert Bean went down with a hamstring injury on the last play of the first half, rookie cornerback Bo Jennings had to play in his first NFL game.

And Bengals coach Dick LeBeau said Jennings, a week removed from Detroit's practice squad, may have to

do it again this Sunday against his old teammates.

Which is turning into an almost even matchup because the Lions' two top receivers are shelved.

"I can run straight ahead, but when I have to make a cut I'm in trouble," Carter said. "I'm hoping it will be better and I can go. I think Bo is going to be a pretty good player. He can run and he's got good size, he just has to learn."

Bean's hamstring showed virtually no improvement Monday and the Bengals are preparing to be without him in Detroit. That leaves only Carter and Jennings behind starters Artrell Hawkins and Mark Roman. . .

RT Willie Anderson has one more test, but he'll play Sunday after leaving the Bears game with a concussion on a hellacious hit by Browns safety Mike Brown. That forced John Jackson into Anderson's spot, the first time the 14-year left tackle had been on the right side: "I know I can play better than that. I was doing a lot of things like I was still on the left. You do it in practice, but a game is always different. . .

WR Chad Johnson says he'll be back for the Nov. 11 game in Jacksonville. Trainer Paul Sparling appreciates the enthusiasm, but he thinks it will take his broken collarbone a little longer than that to heal: "He's doing everything possible. He's running on the underwater treadmill and he's wearing his (electrical) bone stimulator 12 hours a day when the minimum is three." . . .

DT Tony Williams (foot) is on track to return for the Jacksonville game. . .DE Vaughn Booker (ankle) who missed Sunday's game, is probable.

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