Next?

12-27-02, 7:45 p.m.

The published speculation and the national hot stove predict two implosions on Cincinnati's riverfront in the coming days. Cinergy Field falls Sunday morning and the Bengals' coaching staff is supposed to follow in the next 24 hours after the finale in Buffalo.

The first is supposed to take 37 seconds. That is going to happen for sure.

But no one knows if the second implosion is going to happen. Even an enlightened Bengals observer such as radio analyst Dave Lapham, who has been around the team for nearly 30 years, can't call what Bengals President Mike Brown is going to do Monday.

"Only one guy knows and he's not sharing information," Lapham said. "I think it's the most dramatic it's ever been because of the secrecy. I don't remember it ever being this tight before."

If it does happen, then this implosion is no 37 seconds in the making. Try the 360 minutes before the bye week.

Since the Bengals started 0-6 and got outslugged by a combined 150 points, they have been outscored, 248-219, in the last nine games while averaging 365.7 yards per game on offense and allowing 321.7 yards per game on defense once they got their quarterback situation squared away.

Over a 16-game schedule, that computes to No. 6 in the NFL on offense and No. 14 on defense. While the critics want to sue the team for not

being competitive, the Bengals look at an 8-7 team like Cleveland (23rd on offense, 21st on defense) and a 7-8 team like Baltimore (27th on offense, 19th on defense) and wonder how they won just twice in those nine games.

Or, they look at the Lions, the team with which they are battling for the first pick in the NFL Draft, and see a team ranked third worst in offense and next-to-last in defense.

Even throwing in the first six debacles, the Bengals are 19th on offense and 17th on defense. And then there is a team like Atlanta (14th on offense, 20th on defense) that has won nine games and is sniffing the playoffs.

It is, of course, the offensive turnovers, along with the physical and mental mistakes on special teams that have spelled the nine touchdowns scored without the defense on the field and have made the difference since the bye week.

The defense also has played a part. Only six teams have made more turnovers than the Bengals and only one team has fewer takeaways, which is the team they play Sunday.

Still, Buffalo has five more wins than the Bengals despite being No. 11 on offense and No. 14 on defense. But then, you can bet the Bills' haven't allowed 65 points without the defense on the field. Or that they lost second-half leads with a fumbled punt AND a 12-man penalty on a punt return.

(If the Bengals lose Sunday, they are the worst Bengals team ever at 2-14. But are they worse than the 1979 team that was 4-12 and finished 23rd on offense and 28th on defense? Or the 3-13 team in 1993 that was 27th in offense and 16th in defense? Or the 1998 team that was 4-12 and 17th on offense and 30th in defense)?

It is a difficult thing to judge. Are they closer to the Browns than the Lions? Closer to Buffalo than Arizona (5-10 with the 26th offense and 30th defense?)

What isn't difficult to judge is the three straight record-low crowds that ended the home season. Or that there is a black cloud stifling a locker room having a hard time believing anything. Lapham hazards a guess on a possible scenario.

"I know he wants to be fair to the utmost to the coaches," Lapham said of Brown. "I know he doesn't want to make changes, but he almost has to. In his mindset of being fair, I could see where he lets them all go, let them put their hat in the ring everywhere there is change, and leaving them the possibility of being interviewed by the guy that comes here and having those options available.

"In my mind, that's what I see happening," Lapham said. "The only other option is to terminate some and not all. I think then you really shorten your list on who you can get to come (to be the head coach)."

That would be about as significant as it gets. In the history of the Bengals, there have been seven offseasons in which a new coach put together a staff and in all seven cases at least three assistants were holdovers from the previous season. In the last three changes (Dave Shula in 1992, Bruce Coslet in 1997, and Dick LeBeau in 2001), at least five coaches made the transition.

But Lapham also knows this is a club that was expected to fire Sam Wyche in 1987, retain him in 1991, fire Dave Shula before the stadium vote and after the 1995 season, and fire Bruce Coslet, before going into the new stadium after the 1999 season. And didn't do any of those things.

"Just because it's A plus B," said Lapham as he looked at Monday, "doesn't mean it's C."

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