Quarterback change?

9-15-02, 4:10 p.m. Updated:
9-15-02, 8:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

CLEVELAND _ It is now officially awful and getting worse.

The Bengals' season, which got off on the wrong foot last week, got worse here Sunday when the wrong hand pointed the Bengals to another horrendous effort during a 20-7 loss to the Browns.

Unable to protect their quarterback against a Cleveland club missing its top two pass rushers and unable to harass the Browns' Kelly Holcomb, the Bengals' break-out season shattered to 0-2 before the biggest crowd ever in the new Cleveland Browns Stadium at 73,358.

The Bengals go back on the road next Sunday night for a prime-time date in Atlanta with an offense that is in summer reruns. Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau said he does not want to make a quarterback change, but he didn't rule it out, either.

"It's a shock," said linebacker Takeo Spikes of the 0-2 start. "Just a shock. No one is as surprised as we are."

They didn't get their first touchdown in 2002 until 6:27 left in the game when quarterback Gus Frerotte threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chad Johnson. But it was the lone bright moment on a day the quarterback and the receivers spent some time asking which page the other was on.

Sound familiar? Try this.

They also had an early special teams breakdown when they lined up for what looked to be Neil Rackers' 51-yard field goal attempt. Instead, LeBeau called for a pooch punt out of the field-goal formation in an effort to pin the Browns deep. But when Rackers fumbled the direct snap, he lost two yards on a hurried punt.

The Bengals' last ditch bid in the final minute fittingly ended when he got hit on two of the last three plays and then threw a Hail Mary that got picked off by safety Robert Griffith at the Cleveland 11.

"We'll take a good look at that," LeBeau said of the quarterback spot. "I don't want to (change) but you can't win if you don't score. We didn't score in the

first half. We didn't score much last week. But I want these guys to have a chance to grow (together) and get it going. That's what I want to do."

It doesn't sound like there is a change coming. Asked if a new quarterback would be Jon Kitna or Akili Smith, LeBeau said, "I'm not really thinking about that right now. We have to look at the video and talk to the coaches."

Frerotte, who has one touchdown pass and four interceptions after throwng three picks Sunday, is destined to be the third straight Bengals quarterback in the last three years to occupy last place in AFC passing after more than one game.

"Yes, I would be, but you would not," said Frerotte of a possible change. "That is what you guys want, but that is not going to happen. I wouldn't let it happen. I could have no feet and no hands and I am going to be out there. They named me the starter and I am going to work my butt off studying film. I am going to improve every week and we are going to get this team right."

Two interceptions by Frerotte translated into 10 points on a day he hit just 26 of 47 passes for 239 yards. Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon and the run defense was the only shred of consistent decency for the Bengals in an on-again, off-again downpour.

Dillon was on after getting just 10 yards on nine carries last week. He racked up his fifth 100-yard day against the Browns when he picked up 108 yards on 22 carries, and was also his team's leading receiver with a career-high eight catches for 67 yards.

It was the first time the Bengals didn't beat the Browns when Dillon hit 100, and that was largely because of a play destined for the next NFL Follies tape. The Browns took a 17-0 lead in the last minute of the first half after Frerotte tried to get rid of a pass with his left hand to avoid a sack so his team could at least try a field-goal in the red zone.

But Browns defensive end Kenard Lang plucked it out of the air and rambled 71 yards before Frerotte drove him out of bounds inside the Cincinnati 10.

Moot point.

Holcomb, who would finish 17 of 30 for 198 yards, flipped an eight-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kevin Johnson with 21 seconds left to drive the Bengals into even more disarray.

Dillon had 67 yards on 13 carries and 16 more yards on two catches in the first half, but missed the last two-minute drill when he had to leave to get two IVs for a cramp in his calf.

Dillon thought it could have been caused by a tight knee sleeve on his left knee, but trainer Paul Sparling said it was the same sleeve he's been wearing and the cramp was caused by dehydration.

Frerotte, hounded into five sacks, got chased all over northeast Ohio by an obscure band of defenders. Frerotte was a miserable 9 of 22 in the first half for 70 yards. But when he wasn't flat on his back for three sacks, running back Rudi Johnson and wide receiver Michael Westbrook were dropping an estimated five passes between them.

Westbrook dropped two in the half's last drive, and the last one would have given them a first down at about the 10 with less than a minute left.

Then, on third-and-five from the Cleveland 17, Bengals left guard Matt O'Dwyer got pushed back by defensive tackle Orpheus Roye and Roye wrapped up Frerotte. Frerotte, a nine-year veteran, tried to unload it with his other hand and it was disastrous.

Holcomb was deadly efficient for the second straight week on 13 of 20 passing for 164 yards in the first half. While a veteran offensive line couldn't give Frerotte time, the Browns had Holcomb take quick three-step drops to avoid the pressure and the Bengals could manage only one sack.

Kicker Phil Dawson ended the Browns' first drive with the longest field goal of his career and his 20th straight since last season when he hit a 52-yarder five minutes into the game to give the Browns a 3-0 lead.

Then the Bengals mangled their field-goal try on their ensuing drive from 51 yards away when LeBeau opted to forgo Rackers for a punt. Rackers fumbled the direct snap and could only get off a sideways punt that went to the Browns 35.

The Bengals moved the ball much better than on Opening Day, but could get no points despite five drives into Browns' territory in the first half.

The Bengals had a great chance to score on their first drive of the second quarter, but their offensive line couldn't keep them off Frerotte. They made Browns' fans forget about right end Courtney Brown when Lang blew up Frerotte from the right side. Lang was called for hitting the quarterback in the helmet and when Frerotte returned after a play off, Dillon had given him a second-and-six from the Browns 43.

But right guard Mike Goff got pushed back by tackle Gerard Warren and Frerotte couldn't step up to avoid Brown's replacement, Mark Word, wheeling around left tackle Richmond Webb, for the drive-killing sack.

Frerotte couldn't revive the drive on a play he had wide receiver Peter Warrick running wide open on the right sideline and he threw it behind him. Warrick hopped up and down in disgust and the two talked about it on the sidelines. The discussion wasn't as heated, but was reminiscent of the not-on-the-same-page blowup in Baltimore last year.

The Browns then walked in when they got the ball as Holcomb picked on the Bengals' underneath coverage. Kevin Johnson knifed over the middle for a 23-yard gain, tight ends Matt Campbell and Steve Heiden got 20 yards, and Holcomb finished it off by lofting a 15-yard touchdown pass over cornerback Artrell Hawkins to wide receiver Andre Davis to make it 10-0 with less than four minutes left in the half.

With the Bengals badly needing to right their ship Sunday, they had hoped they hit the Browns at just the right time.

Cleveland, coming off a 40-39 loss to Kansas City, didn't have the same offensive line that gave Holcomb time to uncork his career-day 326 yards. Center Dave Wohlabaugh was out with a broken hand and right tackle Ryan Tucker couldn't go after getting hurt last week.

So Shaun O'Hara moved from right guard to make his fifth NFL start at center and first since 2000, while Paul Zukauskas made his first NFL start at right guard and Roger Chanoine moved from backup left tackle to start for Tucker.

The Browns also came in without their top two pass rushers. Jamir Miller is out for the year and Brown (neck) didn't play Sunday.

The Bengals also did some re-tooling on defense, where they have three new starters, and not just because of injury. Injuries forced left outside linebacker Adrian Ross to start in place of Canute Curtis and left end Bernard Whittington to start in front of Vaughn Booker. But they also shuffled their safeties in response to the Chargers' 401-yard day last week. Free safety Mark Roman got benched, JoJuan Armour came off the bench to start at strong safety, and Cory Hall moved from strong to free.

Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh was expected to get only spot time because of a muscle pull, which gave Westbrook his first Bengals' start. Houshmandzadeh didn't get consistent snaps until late in the game and he finished with five catches for 58 yards.

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