9-29-03, 5:40 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
CLEVELAND _ For once, the Bengals' young players seem to be emerging instead of busting. For once, the free agents are earning money instead of scorn. For once, the head coach looks to be getting his message across.
For once, they are in contention in the AFC North heading into October.
Cincinnati 21, Cleveland 14. Bengals 1-1 in the division and 60 minutes from first place. Marvin Lewis now 327 victories behind Don Shula.
"He's a genius, really, in football," said Kitna of his rookie head coach. "He's had to fight through the years of attitude and frustration and all that goes along with 12,13 years of losing. He's done a good job of fighting through that and making sure our attitude is right."
Wide receiver Chad Johnson had a cigar ready to give to Lewis after his first win, but pocketed it himself when right tackle Willie Anderson gave him a game ball.
"You can't have both," Johnson said.
Lewis was just glad for his first victory, thank you, and keep the trophies.
"It means a lot to everybody," Lewis said. "It means a lot for our football team. It means a lot to our city. We've got to go get another one."
The Bengals needed something from everyone Sunday and they got it. Third-year running back Rudi Johnson, who has set records everywhere he's been, came into the game with just 17 NFL carries. But he relieved the injured Corey Dillon in the second half on 15 carries for 51 yards and flashed his just-move-the-chains style.
"To me," Johnson said, "four yards is a good run. I'll take four yards every time."
For some reason, Johnson has had trouble impressing the new coaching staff. He has been nicked with a strained thigh that kept him out of uniform this season until Sunday, and he'll march to his own drummer occasionally.; But Lewis had nowhere to turn at halftime with Brandon Bennett's elusive style only netting him seven yards on five carries against the Browns' athletic front.
While Lewis needed a ball-control back, Kitna needed a big-play artist and got it in the form of third-round pick Kelley Washington. After a week of lobbying Kitna and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski to get him the ball, Washington made
two third-down catches on the winning drive that Kitna called the two biggest plays of the game.
On third-and-10 from the Bengals 20, Kitna faced a blitz, but saw Washington working on Daylon McCutcheon, the Browns' best cornerback, and got an 11-yard reception. On third-and-6 from the Bengals 46, Kitna got him for a 17-yard gain.
"The guy made two huge plays," Kitna said. "On that first one, he ran an out route against an experienced corner, and on the second one he just found a soft spot in the zone behind the corner and safety."
And, by the way, held on after taking a hellacious hit in mid-air from strong safety Robert Griffith. So those who thought Washington might still be worried about his neck can rest easy. After having just two catches for 18 yards the whole season, Washington had two for 28 yards in three minutes.
"It wasn't drawing up plays for him," Kitna said. "It was making him part of the reads."
Johnson doesn't have Dillon's break-away speed, but he keeps moving his legs fast enough and long enough to make something out of nothing.
"He's a downhill back who is going to keep coming at you," said right guard Mike Goff. "He was fabulous today getting some big yards."
Here's a guy who gained 373 yards in the junior college national title game, and gained more yards in one season at Auburn than all but Bo Jackson. It shouldn't be too big for him if he earned his first NFL start in Buffalo next week with Dillon resting his sore groin.
"Whatever they say," Johnson said. "I'm just here to run the offense."
And there were other emerging players Sunday. Anderson noted the blocking of rookie fullback Jeremi Johnson. Tight end Reggie Kelly, a free-agent from the Falcons, scored his first Bengals' touchdown on a one-yard catch and it turned out to be the winner.
"It's good for these guys to start getting an identity with this team," Anderson said. "It gives them more confidence and gives us more guys we can count on."