National disaster

9-22-02, 11:40 p.m. Updated:
9-23-02, 6:10 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

ATLANTA _ After taking a nationally-televised embarrassment here to the Falcons in a 30-3 loss Sunday night, the Bengals somehow find themselves in the exact same spot when Dick LeBeau took over in the wake of Bruce Coslet's resignation two years ago.

And there will be a change this week for sure when the Bengals play Tampa Bay this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Jon Kitna or Akili Smith gets the start at quarterback after Gus Frerotte completed only one of his seven passes and it went to the Falcons.

But if the Bengals have a new head coach, it won't be because LeBeau resigns.

"It never crossed my mind," said a crushed LeBeau. "I want to get us out of this hole. We are going to fight our way out of it. . . .I know we can play football a lot better than this. We have to do it. We need to get a heck of a lot better than that. It was a very poor performance. . .We were defeated decisively."

The Bengals have now been outscored in their first three games, 84-16, have just one touchdown, have yet to force a turnover, have never had the lead, and left the Georgia Dome after Kitna played most of a game in which they didn't complete a pass until seven minutes left in the first half.

Jimmy Carter was on hand, but the former president no longer had the power to call the site a disaster area.

Before the game, Bengals President Mike Brown, reacting to the local newspaper reports that new Falcons owner Arthur Blank had grown impatient with his team's 0-2 start, said, "impatience is not the magic solution.

"You have to look at the whole and not just the first two games," Brown said. "You can't judge it on just 12 and a half percent of the schedule. I don't know if it does anybody any good to panic."

But that was before a performance where by the time Falcons quarterback Michael Vick scrambled out of the pocket to hit wide receiver Brian Finneran with a 13-yard touchdown pass to make it 20-0, the Bengals had gone through two quarterbacks, six penalties, a 17-yard punt, and an interception. Brown had a brisk no comment after the game.

When LeBeau took over on Sept. 25, 2000, the Bengals were coming off a 37-0 pasting in Baltimore and had been outscored, 74-7. What will happen this Monday morning remains to be seen, but the debacle that included five penalties in the game's first six minutes, a time of possession of 23:15, and just 11 first downs isn't going to help a guy looking for a contract extension.

Or help with the schedule makers. In their first national appearance in four years, all they did was heighten their chance of getting into a Jay Leno or David Letterman monologue.

"Embarrassing. That's what is embarrassing. We were on national TV," said defensive captain Takeo Spikes. "We had the opportunity to change the perception of what America thinks about the Bengals.

"Ever since my Dad passed (last year), you have to take advantage of every opportunity," Spikes said. "You never know when opportunity comes again. We hadn't been on national TV since our first year. It might be another four years now."

The Bengals, stalking nationwide acceptance, buried themselves in a flurry of careless mistakes. The shockingly sloppy performance will no doubt raise the question of the Bengals' lack of discipline Monday. They fell behind, 20-0, in the game's first 20 minutes, which marked them being outscored, 57-0, in the first half this season.

They did manage to get a 24-yard field goal from Neil Rackers with three seconds left in the half as Kitna hit six of his first nine passes for 34 yards to make it, 20-3.

The Falcons' last score in the first half came off special teams confusion. They weren't sure of their personnel on the field for a Nick Harris punt and then didn't adjust when cornerback Kevin Mathis moved into the slot to blitz. Harris had to hurry and it resulted in 17 yards.

The Bengals turned to Kitna and he fittingly took over with his back to the wall on his own two-yard-line with 7:54 left in the first half.

But by then, they had trotted their tired old rerun in falling behind quickly with no resistance to the 0-2 Falcons. When Vick executed a play-action fake and Finneran beat cornerback Jeff Burris inside for a 20-yard touchdown with just under two minutes left in the first quarter, it was already 13-0.

Vick was immense. The Bengals couldn't keep him in the pocket as he he bobbed and weaved in out of the pocket. He converted one third-and-nine on basic sweep around his left side, and hit Finneran on a big pass when he faked defensive end Reinard Wilson to the turf and straightened up to throw a bullet to on the sideline.

"Two words tell you what beat us," Spikes said. "Michael Vick. You can't spy him all the time because that weakens your other areas. He just point blank beat us."

Vick's five runs rung up 56 yards and he hit 16 of 26 passes for 174 yards. Still, the Bengals defense held the Falcons to just 161yards in the first half, but their offense was so inept it didn't matter.

After Kitna completed his first pass with seven minutes left in the half, he finished the night 18 of 35 for 136 yards. The wide receivers caught just three passes in the first half with the longest one a nine-yarder. Wide receiver Chad Johnson had the longest catch of the night for Cincinnati, a 20-yarder.

In fact, they had as many catches as drops in the first half. Michael Westbrook dropped two and Peter Warrick dropped one from Frerotte over the middle that would have gone for about 50 yards.

They did get their first catch from a tight end, a six-yard pass to rookie Matt Schobel. But Sean Brewer, the starting tight end, didn't have any after leaving with a knee sprain, yet he didn't appear on trainer Paul Sparling's injury list.

Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon was the only thing standing between the Bengals and a network cancellation. Dillon had nowhere to go on 12 carries for 40 yards in the first half and finished with 66 yards on 18 carries. How fouled up is the offense? Dillon came into the game as their leading receiver and his three catches for 15 yards led them in the first half.

Westbrook, who didn't catch a pass, played backup when T.J. Houshmandzadeh started in his place and caught a team-high 36 yards on three balls.

The Bengals came on in prime time, but it started out as Saturday morning cartoons when they picked up five penalties in the game's first six minutes and fell behind, 6-0, on two Jay Feely field goals.

After a taunting penalty on the first play of the game on defensive tackle Oliver Gibson and an offsides penalty on the man next to him a few plays later on Tony Williams, Feely kicked a 44-yarder five minutes into the game.

Then Bengals backup guard Brock Gutierrez was called for holding on the ensuing kickoff to push the Bengals to the 13 and when the Bengals' offensive line couldn't hear the signals because of the crowd, right guard Mike Goff and left tackle Richmond Webb each had a false start and Frerotte served up an interception on third-and-20 from his 3 to Mathis, a nickel back playing his first game for the Falcons.

Frerotte tried to hit Warrick over the middle, but underthrew him and Mathis took it to the Bengals 15, which resulted in Feely's 26-yard field goal.

The Bengals insisted that discipline isn't a problem.

"Not when guys are doing their job Monday through Friday," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "Guys know what to do. They watch film. They focus. I think we're practicing all right. We just have to change our approach to the way we play on Sunday."

Gibson blamed himself for that first taunting penalty.

"It was a stupid response to a push. The last guy always gets caught. I put the team in a hole," Gibson said. "It's not discipline as far as the coaches. It's about myself. I've been in the league eight years. I know better than that. It was a dumb reaction. I got caught up in the moment. I hurt the team. It's not lack of discipline. It's lack of execution and it starts with me."

They had trouble executing on the offensive line again. Webb gave up a sack of both Frerotte and Kitna for the two sacks they allowed and the Bengals got to Vick once for end Justin Smith's first sack of the season.

Goff is out for at least two weeks when he had to leave after opening up the severe cut on his right knee that he first injured falling down a ravine the week of the opener.

No one had to tell Anderson this start had all the earmarks of 2000.

"That's when our attitude changed (for the better)," Anderson said. "We need to have an attitude adjustment like that again on Sundays."

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