Offense for a Brat

5-6-01, 12:55 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The idea is to make the Bengals' offense less predictable than it was during last year's miserable famine of a franchise-low 185 points.

In that case, Saturday's unveiling at Paul Brown Stadium was a success because it was real hard to predict where the quarterbacks were going to throw and where the wide receivers were going to run as the Bengals grappled with the most dramatic change in their offensive system ever.

The Bengals are now officially more Don Coryell than Bill Walsh.

"That's going to happen on a first day," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski of the choppy, uncertain performance. "Then we'll put in some more plays tomorrow and confuse them even more. But they'll get it." P>Even the way head coach Dick LeBeau lists the quarterbacks on the depth chart provides convenient confusion. The names of Jon Kitna, Scott Mitchell, Akili Smith are all jammed into the starter's column in italics and listed alphabetically.

Kitna and Smith got the bulk of the work with the first team as some facts did manage to emerge from the murky waters.

Second-round draft pick Chad Johnson, a wide receiver from Oregon State, is going to be around a long time with his 6-1 size, 40-yard dash, and soft hands.

"Chad Johnson," Smith said, "is something special."

And his college teammate and fellow receiver, seventh-round pick T.J. Houshmandzadeh, showed more of the same in establishing he'll make the roster decision on five or six receivers very interesting.

"It felt funny to be in a meeting and to be confused," said tight end Tony McGee, who has basically had the same West Coast playbook through Dave Shula and Bruce Coslet since he came here in 1993.

"I like it," McGee said of the new scheme. "It gives you the freedom to be an athlete. It's not trying to outthink and outscheme. It's not, if this happens and that happens, then do this. The way it looks now, if you beat your man, you'll get the ball."

The Bengals think everyone has had a pretty good idea where they were going with the ball the past few seasons.

"We were very predictable," McGee said. "If

we went vertical, nine out of 10 times we were doing an in cut. (Titans strong safety) Blaine Bishop could tell you that in his sleep."

Bratkowsi hopes to roust an offense that was dead last in NFL passing last year by dictating to the defense. He began Friday night's opening meeting by posting the offensive stats of teams that made the playoffs the past three seasons and set them as goals.

Kitna saw the numbers pile up in 1997 when Bratkowski coordinated Seattle's No. 1 passing offense. And he says the Bengals have better personnel with Pro Bowler Corey Dillon at running back and the depth at receiver.

Seattle's outside receivers were James McKnight and Joey Galloway, who both ran under 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and elusive Mike Pritchard in the slot.

"Pete Warrick is younger," said Kitna of the Bengals' slot receiver. "Pritchard did a great job, but he was beat up. He was at the tail end of his career. Darnay Scott reminds me of James McKnight. . .Both are so strong, and they just blaze, and when the ball is in the air, they go get it."

Some major points about Bratkowski's playbook:

_It's based on confusing the defense with different arrays of personnel groups and stretch-the-field speed.

_The positions are so interchangeable, every player has to know every spot.

_The scheme for the NFL's second-best rushing game is staying intact. But the offensive line has to adjust to new pass protections, which are now called by the quarterback instead of the center.

"I don't like to point fingers, but this offense is spread out (with) three, four, sometimes five receivers. It can be great. The sky's the limit," Scott said.

"Three guys are in there all the time," Scott said. "If I'm not open, they swing the ball to the other side. In (the old offense), if the guy's not open, the quarterback brings it down, brings it down, and takes off running."

The multiple personnel groups should make it all less predictable.

"I've got a lot of friends (playing for) Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and they told me in the offseason that they knew our offense," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "I know coaches say that shouldn't matter, that you should still be able to run it. But it gives them a heads-up start if they know what the hell is coming. They can stack a certain side."

Kitna said Bratkowski fancies the St. Louis way of things, in which foes are back on their heels against the Rams.

And, Kitna noticed a change in his old coach Friday night now that Bratkowski no longer working under offensive guru Dennis Erickson.

"Coach Brat wants to be aggressive," Kitna said. "He wants to be up tempo. He wants speed so he can be playcalling to get the ball downfield.

"With Coach LeBeau being a defensive coach, Coach Bratkowski is running his own ship," Kitna said. "I saw more fire in his eyes last night. I saw that excitement."

Fullback Clif Groce compares the offense to what Lindy Infante had in Indianapolis. The fullback can line up as a tight end, or a receiver, or a receiver split wide, or a receiver in the slot. That's why everybody has to know everybody's spot.

"That's what the Giants did last year," Groce said. "They ran the same plays, but out of a 100 different formations. All we were last year was two receivers, two backs, or three receivers and not three receivers that much and they always lined up in the same spot and did the same things. Not with this offense."

McGee says what can make this offense click is it isn't as rigid as the West Coast stuff. Instead of a route being exactly 14 yards, it can be between 10 and 14: "A lot of stuff can happen to you by the time you get to 14 yards."

There seems more to know. But right guard Mike Goff says that's why you have the live-and-learn practices like Saturday.

"Plenty of time," Goff said. "We've got the whole month of May to get it down."

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