1-4-02, 4:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The cry is to change the coaches or the scheme or both. But the Bengals offensive coordinator believes both have to stay the same if they want to dig out from the bottom of the NFL statistics.
"We'll change, we'll tinker, we'll adjust, but you have to keep the core," said Bob Bratkowski this week. "It will be better. But the main concepts have to stay the same."
In one of the first indications from inside that Bratkowski's staff is to remain relatively intact next year despite three shutouts and 10 games with less than 15 points, he said "wholesale coaching changes," would hurt.
The announcement that at least the offensive staff won't change much, if it all, is expected early next week and probably as soon as Monday.
Bratkowski vows to evaluate "every phase of practices and games," of a season that ends Sunday in Tennessee. He says the coaches have already made adjustments to the running game during the final month in the face of mounting injuries as the Bengals have looked to free up Corey Dillon in more places than off tackle. And he plans to scrutinize everything in more exhaustive fashion in the offseason.
When Bratkowski joined the staff last year, he was added to a group of position coaches that was already here. While he has had to fight some turf wars on the idea front, he refuted the notion Friday that he needs his own hires to make it work,
"I hate to use the phrase, my guys,' but other people use it," Bratkowski said. "In essence, these guys are my guys. We're all together in this thing and we have been all year. I haven't been told there are any problems as far as that goes.
"These coaches now have a year under their belts learning the offense," Bratkowksi said. "Now we can use the offseason to adjust and fine tune the little things we couldn't get to because of the learning this past offseason and season."
No changes to a core of a staff that has been in place since 1997, when the Bengals finished 13th in NFL offense, won't be popular. From '98-01, the Bengals have been 17th, 23rd, and 31st and are 27th this season. But they figure lack of continuity won't help.
Or, as Bratkowski says, "You can't run away from commitment at the first sign of trouble. How can you face the players when you try and sell them?"
Quarterback Jon Kitna and wide receiver Chad Johnson agree. Their sideline disagreement in Baltimore 12 days ago symbolized the rough road
the new offense has had this season, but they both urged hands off this week. Even wide receiver Peter Warrick, who has grumbled about his position in the slot in multi receiver sets, is coming off the first 100-yard day of his career wondering what more this offense can do.
"I really needed that," he said. "Next year, I'm going to do something special."
"When was the last time you had the same quarterback the next year?" asked Kitna, bidding in '02 to become the first back-to-back Bengals Opening Day starter since Jeff Blake in 1996-97. "That has to say something about continuity. I bet Baltimore would like to have Trent Dilfer along about now."
Johnson has been among the most critical of the offense's lack of big-play punch, but now he's preaching patience with coaches and scheme.
"You can't change in the middle of rebuilding," Johnson said. "That's a no-no. We just got here. It's a brand new offense. Can't we get adjusted to it? Nobody can go. What happens next year when you make changes and nothing happens? We're going to come in next year and not have to learn it. Sticking with it would be common sense. There's light at the end of the tunnel."
It could be the same one Bengals President Mike Brown has been looking at the last month when he has said repeatedly about the offense, "We're closer than people think."
It's a hard sell when Kitna is the NFL's lowest rated passer, his average pass gain of 5.39 is the AFC's worst by a full yard, and their 203 points with one game left is dead last in the NFL.
But it's also 18 more points than they scored last year. With one game left, they've passed for 806 more yards, 51 more first downs, and twice as many touchdowns as last season with 12.
They also have nearly twice as many more passes of 20 yards or more to wide receivers (27-16) than last year and allowed 25 fewer sacks while throwing 100 more passes.
They've also been in the red zone eight more times than last season. But one of the major problems is they have come out of it with no points 14 times. Last year, they came out with nothing 10 times.
"Bob brought a new system with him and we've worked to get our arms around it," Brown said. "I think as time has gone on, we've been better with it. We have an improved offense. It's obviously not enough. With some adjustments with (the players) we have, we can be an improved team."
One of the knocks is in Bratkowski's bid for multiple formations and diversity, the Bengals' bread-and-butter running game suffered in falling from second last year in the NFL to 18th now.
But Bratkowksi argues the versatility has saved them in the past eight games, when they have been without either one of their top two tight ends or both. They've been without their top four tight ends for the last four games.
As of late, the Bengals have been successful moving the ball with one tight end and two-back sets that have featured two receivers, as well as sets with two backs and three wides.
"Because we've been using all these formations since the very beginning, we can go back and rely on personnel groups and know what we're doing," Bratkowski said. "For instance, we're able to function with four-receiver packages lately because it's part of what we do."
The Bengals, who ran out of double tight-end sets frequently before the injuries, racked up 100-plus days the past two games against the NFL's Nos. 1 and 2 rush defenses behind "big regular." Which is two backs (Dillon and fullback Lorenzo Neal), and two receivers running behind 350-pound tackle Jamain Stephens at tight end.
Aganst the Steelers last week, they also had their biggest passing day of the season with some four-receiver sets. But that doesn't mean the Bengals can go four wides all the time.
"You can't do anything exclusively in the NFL," Bratkowski said. "You can't do just a couple of things. Look at the Steelers. One of the league's top offenses and they're always popping out of different formations."
Bratkowksi will also argue the Steelers have had pretty much the same offense for the past seven seasons. Which means the Bengals young receivers (five are rookies or second-year players) have to mature like the young Steeler receivers needed time to mature. Or like the young Bengals linebackers of 1998 and 1999.
"I wish they'd have picked up the offense faster, no question," Bratkowski said. "But they are coming along and that's a good sign. "It's hard to speed up experience in the system and experience on game day. Until you see improvement in games, you' re not going to have it."