Offense stakes claim for '03

11-25-02, 9 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals President Mike Brown has heard the players, studied the stat sheet, and watched the games.

And he is also uncomfortable about changing the club's offensive scheme next season. In fact, on Monday, it sounded like he was on the same page with Jon Kitna, Chad Johnson, and other offensive players who have urged sticking with the same playbook while praising the staff.

"It sets you back and we know about that here in recent years," Brown said of changing offenses. "The players seem to be saying that they hope we don't change it. They don't have to tell me, I can see it. We see what they see. Maybe I feel the same way they do."

Brown emphasized there are still five games left in the season that he wants to win, too early to set anything in stone for 2003. But he made it clear he does believe what players think is important and he has taken note that since Kitna became the starting

quarterback seven games ago, the club is averaging 22.6 points per game and four of their losses have been by eight points or less.

"I think everything has an influence," said Brown when asked about player input. "You have to take everything into account. Jon has played well. His quarterback rating has been at a level where it should be producing wins. It's not his fault we're not winning."

Brown is feeling heat to blow up his entire organization and detonate the worst team in football this season and over the last decade. But he is offensive-minded and when it comes to Kitna's offense, Brown has seen a definite climb up the ladder in the last two months and he wonders, too, what might have been if Kitna had started the season.

"I don't like to change when it involves scapegoating, " Brown said. "And when I look at what we do on offense, it seems to me what we're doing is all right. Maybe there are other teams that are cleverer, but on the other hand, at times, we are just as clever, if not more. It's a close thing. But we obviously have to wring out the errors we get because there are more than we want and everyone down here knows we have to tinker with it and refine it."

What this means for head coach Dick LeBeau remains to be seen. It's believed LeBeau is in the last year of his deal and Brown won't say whether he has talked to him about his status for next year.

"We discuss everything relating to the franchise, as much as he cares to entrust in me, and get my opinion," LeBeau said.

Asked if he thinks he's coming back in '03, LeBeau said, "There's been a definite hiatus of those types of questions and I have been very, very grateful to all the writers. And my answer is we're going to take them one game at a time."

The Bengals are ranked 21st in the league in offense and while Brown says that's too low, he also knows that should translate into more than one victory over an expansion team in 11 tries.

"Twenty-first isn't where we want to be," Brown said. "It's better than where our record is. By that standard, we are a team that should have four to five wins, but we don't. and we're still out there trying to turn it around."

The teams ranked right above (San Diego at 7-4) and right below (Cleveland at 6-5) the Bengals on offense are in the thick of the playoff chase. The three teams behind them (the Browns, Jets, and Buccaneers) have winning records. The five teams right behind them have at least four wins.

Whether this means Brown is thinking about making changes in other areas and leaving the offense alone is unclear. As well as premature with five games left.

But Brown looks at Kitna's 88.4 passer rating in his seven starts and knows what it means if he plays in December like he did in November. It means they will have solved their quarterback question for the offseason and it means they'll be looking at defensive tackles and cornerbacks early in the draft instead of quarterbacks.

"If we keep up this level , it's going to make us see our needs differently," Brown said. "What we'll do, I don't know. But there are five games left and that's a good chunk of the season."

But Brown knows there are several on-field problems keeping them from winning, such as an inconsistent defense, a special teams unit that always seems to surface negatively in the final accounts of most losses, and an offense that can't finish off a victory.

"As far as the first four games, there's no escaping it," Brown said. "We fell on our face. We were the horse that stumbled out of the gate and the race was over before we got our balance. Even though we're playing a lot better, we still know we've got a long way to go to get to where we want to be."

As a NFL veteran of 44 seasons, LeBeau has gone into plenty of Decembers not knowing where he would be in January. A three-time Pro Bowler, he figures he didn't get his first two-year deal until he'd been in the league about 10 years.

"I don't mind that at all," LeBeau said. "I just hope we can win some games here."

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