Speculation in the air

12-30-02, 12:50 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. _ Even as names such as Tom Coughlin and Marvin Lewis spilled over the airwaves as his possible successor Sunday, Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau kept his ever-present class intact while meeting the media following the 27-9 loss to the Bills.

"It's not any fun for any of us," LeBeau said. "Life is about living. We aren't happy with what happened this year, but we are looking forward to 2003 and getting things straightened around."

But league-wide speculation is that LeBeau won't be the coach by the end of the day Monday and everybody else will be if Bengals President Mike Brown decides not to pick up the option year of what is believed to be LeBeau's two-year deal.

Got a coach? He probably had already been linked to the Bengals in some form by the end of Sunday.

Names that have interested

the Bengals in various reports are Lewis, Baltimore's Super Bowl defensive coordinator now working in Washington who was a LeBeau disciple in Pittsburgh, Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, as well as former Vikings head coach Dennis Green.

Coughlin's name surfaced during the Bengals' radio broadcast Sunday as ESPN reported Coughlin was out as Jacksonville's only head coach after eight seasons. Bengals analyst Dave Lapham characterized him as a possible candidate because he fits Brown's profile of an offensive head coach.

As respected and as admired as LeBeau is by his coaches, players, and media, his record as the Bengals' head coach is 12-33 and the club is facing searing public pressure in the form of six non-sellouts this past season and a possible taxpayer lawsuit.

LeBeau summed up Sunday's loss like he could have summed up the 0-7 start that buried his team in what was supposed to be a break-out year.

"We got too far behind early," he said, as his team ended the season getting outscored, 267-156, in the first half.

Other problems that have hounded LeBeau in his 45 games also plagued the Bengals Sunday.

They had a season-high 10 penalties for 105 yards in the fifth game they had least nine penalties. They dodged a bullet when they had to replay a third down because they had 12 men on the field, two weeks after that cost them the Jacksonville game on a punt. With punter Nick Harris struggling, they got killed again in hidden yards with Buffalo's average start drive at the Bills 40. The Bengals, near the bottom of red-zone play all year, only went 1-for-3 on red zone touchdowns Sunday. They only scored touchdowns 45 percent of the time in the red zone this year compared to 41 percent last season.

"This epitomized our season," said quarterback Jon Kitna.

LeBeau indicated he has no idea what will happen Monday, but Brown traditionally meets with the head coach and his assistants the morning after the last game.

Brown told Don Criqui of CBS before the game that the Bengals aren't "as broken," as they seem and LeBeau agreed.

"If you look at it statistically, there is a lot of work to do, but it's not an insurmountable thing," LeBeau said. "The solution is to correct it and not let it happen again."

Some of the solutions many players privately would like to see are changes in strength and conditioning, as well as having enough scouts go on the road to evaluate prospects so the coaches don't have to in the offseason.

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