Offseason to playoffs?

1-1-02, 12:25 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

At his New Year's Eve news conference, head coach Dick LeBeau was asked if he thought he had enough in place to make a playoff run for '02. He won't talk about specific off-season changes until the season is over Sunday, but he's hopeful.

"We have been a competitive team, but the simple truth is we haven't won enough football games. I really believed that we could do it in one offseason and I really, really, really believe we can do it in two," said LeBeau as he appears to be heading into his second offseason.

With the seven-game losing streak, LeBeau joked he forgot how to hand out game balls. With so many people involved in the 26-23 OT comeback over Pittsburgh, LeBeau said he needed extra time to sort it out and they will get the balls Wednesday morning.

The six wide receivers could get one as a group. Their 384 yards is a club record for a wide receiving corps in a game and all contributed Sunday. Darnay Scott had a season-high 113 yards, Peter Warrick had a career-high 109 yards, T.J. Houshmandzadeh had a career-high 98 yards, Ron Dugans and Danny Farmer each had touchdowns, and Chad Johnson got a key pass interference penalty on cornerback Chad Scott that revived the tying touchdown drive by negating a fourth-down incompletion. **

GOOD GUY:** Fullback Lorenzo Neal received the first "Good Guy," award Monday from the newly-formed Cincinnati chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America. The award is chosen by the six reporters who cover the Bengals daily for The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Cincinnati Post, The Dayton Daily News, The Columbus Dispatch, The Associated Press, Bengals.com, and goes to the player who cooperates above and beyond with the media.

Also receiving votes were Tom Carter, Willie Anderson, Takeo Spikes, Jon Kitna, Brandon Bennett, and Bernard Whittington.

Dayton's Chick Ludwig, chairman and driving force of the fledgling chapter, gave Neal a plaque Monday after head coach Dick LeBeau's news conference. In true "Good Guy," fashion, Neal showed up to accept even though LeBeau gave the players the day off.

HAWKINS SHOULDERS CAREER: This is why the Bengals have always liked cornerback Artrell Hawkins, even when he was this generation of fans' "Toast," because he was burned so often.

And this is why they dearly wish he will re-sign with them when he hits free agency in the next few weeks.

Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Five minutes left in a game the Bengals trail by 13 points and they have just turned the ball over to the Steelers on downs at the 50 and if the fans haven't left yet, they have now

On first down, the Steelers send 250-pound running back Chris Fuamatu'afala on a sweep to Hawkins' sideline. Now, Hawkins is 185 pounds, playing on a balky ankle, and 65 minutes from free agency on a team with four wins in the 15-degree-end-of-season chill.

But he lowers his shoulder and gets crushed out-of-bounds. Fu gets only a yard and Hawkins a seat on the bench with a messed-up shoulder. But the play helps force Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart throw two plays later on third down, and that's when Justin Smith picks off the pass that begins the Bengals' improbable comeback.

"It's a big part of what I do," said Hawkins Monday of taking on the unappealing matchup. "He was going full speed, I was going full speed. There's something inside you that doesn't want to turn down the hit. I didn't give and he didn't give and I guess his 250 got the best of my 185. He stayed in and I didn't."

The proof is in the MRI, which Hawkins said showed a slightly separated shoulder as well as a slight tear and he doubts he can play in Sunday's finale in Tennessee. But he did return to play a bit in the overtime for a few snaps and cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle swore he saw him make two one-arm tackles .

"It hurts when I cough and I had to sleep in a chair last night," Hawkins said. "I'd like to play in that last game. You always want to finish out the season. But if I can't, I feel like I proved this year that I can still play, be effective and be consistent."

He finally did all that in his fourth season while re-claiming the starting job in training camp that he lost last year. "Toast," became one of the Bengals' bread-and-butter guys. He also jacked his market value. And he plays a position where the Bengals have

lived through years in which free-agents-to-be have come up with creative tackling angles to avoid contact.

Not Hawkins. Not Sunday. Not against 250 pounds of Fu. In fact, not ever. If it's not Neil Rackers or Jon Kitna, then Hawkins has been the easiest target of the boo birds and talk show hate. Yes, during his first three years he was beaten more often than a cliché.

But why the venom? The tape shows a guy who never turns down a hit or play.

Hawkins found himself asking
about his enthusiasm so close to free agency Sunday night.

"I was just thankful I'm walking because he was coming, he was coming hard," Hawkins said. "Either he's going to hit me or I'm going to die trying to get him. When I got home last night, I was thinking that I could have messed myself up pretty good.

"Hopefully, it will show (the NFL) I'm not worried about the free agent thing right now," Hawkins said. "I'm still playing football."

He did that Sunday. On the Steelers' last play before he got hurt, Hawkins tied his career high with his third interception of the season to blunt the Steelers at the Cincinnati 31.

Hawkins, who takes the slot receiver in multi-receiver sets, found himself working often against the Steelers' red-hot Hines Ward. Ward, closing in on a 1,000-yard season with 18 catches in his previous three games, had just three catches for 42 yards. It was Ward that Hawkins cut in front of for the diving pick.

"I wasn't even looking at Stewart. I was looking at Hines," Hawkins said of the third-and-eight play. "He motioned down off a stack and I knew he was running off my alignment and I was inside. I was anticipating him going to the outside. I got a clean break on it."

A few minutes later, Hawkins almost got broke.

"I don't know if I'll be making tackles like that next Sunday," said Hawkins. "It doesn't look good, but if I can play, I will."

Which is why the Bengals hope Hawkins sticks around.

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