1-24-2001 BY GEOFF HOBSON
TAMPA, Fla. _ The Bengals officially became more of a spread offense Wednesday when they hired Steelers receivers coach Bob Bratkowski as offensive coordinator to rescue the NFL's lowest-rated pass offense.
Bratkowski, 45, a Dennis Erickson, three-receiver disciple, returns to a post he had for four years under Erickson in Seattle during the mid-1990s. The pair also clicked in the passing game at the University of Miami during national championship runs in 1989 and 1991.
The Seahawks led the league in passing with Bratkowski in 1997, a year they finished third overall in the NFL. With the Bengals coming off a season they scored a franchise-low 185 points, they're hoping Bratkowski's schemes can revive franchise quarterback Akili Smith's career, spread defenses for Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon as he runs more out of a one-back set, and put wide receiver Peter Warrick more at his home in the slot.
"I guess you could say it's more of a spread offense, but you can only do what your personnel does best," Bratkowski said. "And we have to sit down and determine that. It's ridiculous to force feed a system if the players can't do it.
"But I do like to be multiple," Bratkowski said. "I like to go three wides, four wides, even empty the backfield. But you also have to be able to shut it down. And you also have to be able to run the ball with two backs. The key is not to do one thing, but to keep them guessing."
The Bengals have been criticized at times during the past few seasons by their own players for being too predictable on offense. But Bratkowski brings the dimension of running the ball out of a spread formation on first and second down.
The theory is that would force defenses to take the eighth man off the line of scrimmage for Dillon and get a more friendly match up in the running game with Warrick and his effective blocking taking on a defensive back.
"He's a master of shifting and formations and a guy who makes defenses adjust," said Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau of Bratkowski. "And he's a guy who's done it on the collge and pro level.
"We have just become different on offense," LeBeau said. "We won't hesitate to spread the field. We still want to run the football. But will we possibly carry more receivers than we have in the past? I think that's a possibility."
Former Browns head coach Chris Palmer was also very high on LeBeau's list.
But when LeBeau got the sense Wednesday morning Palmer needed time to mull opportunities in Tampa and Houston, LeBeau tapped Bratkowski. He said he reached the contract stage with both men, but went ahead and got a deal done with Bratkowski as Palmer pondered his other options.
"Chris was discussing and considering and we thought we were ready to go with Bob," LeBeau said. "They're both good coaches. Bob was productive in both college and the pros under Dennis and I like the fact that he's got another chance to be a coordinator."
Smith had been pushing for Palmer, but receivers coach Steve Mooshagian thinks the low-key, likeable Bratkowski will be a good match for the troubled quarterback.
He also thinks the multi-receiver sets
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fit the makeup of his players.
"I'm excited because Bob has led this level in passing before and any time you get a guy of that caliber is a boost," Mooshagian said. "The spread stuff should play to our strength because Pete is at his best in the slot."
Bratkowksi has been appointed to lead an offensive staff that is entrenched in Cincinnati, led by running backs coach Jim Anderson (18 years), quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson (eight years), and offensive line coach Paul Alexander (seven years). The lack of scoring resulted in the demotion of offensive coordinator Ken Anderson and LeBeau made it clear change is coming.
"Bob's got a big ally," LeBeau said, "because he's got the support of the head coach."
Bratkowksi, a 14-year college coaching veteran before coming to the NFL nine seaons ago, isn't intimidated joining this staff.
"I've known Jim Anderson a long time and Kenny," Bratkowski said. "There's no reason we can't get this done. I know my personality and I know we can get along and be productive."
Bratkowski grew up around the game as the son of Zeke Bratkowski, a 16-year NFL quarterback with the Bears, Rams and Packers.
After playing wide receiver at Washingon State from 1975-77, he became the offensive coordinator at Weber State (1984-85), Wyoming (1986), Washington State (1987-88) and Miami (1989-91) before joining Tom Flores' staff in Seattle in 1992. In 1995, he was reunited with Erickson in Seattle as his offensive coordinator.
When Erickson left Seattle, Bratkowski joined the Steelers in 1999. But head coach Bill Cowher passed over him for the Steelers' coordinator job earlier this month when he went with tight ends coach Mike Mularkey.