Streak boosts offseason

1-7-02, 8:20 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

NASHVILLE, Tenn. _ For once, the other locker room was in disarray at the end of a season.

Titans defensive backs DeRon Jenkins and Perry Phenix got in a fight on the sidelines. Left tackle Brad Hopkins got in the face of a reporter. Coach Jeff Fisher tried to explain where his free safety was on Bengals wide receiver Darnay Scott's 39-yard catch-and-run that set up Neil Rackers' 34-yard field goal with 20 seconds left that gave Cincinnati a 23-21 victory in Sunday's finale.

Things were a bit more unified on the other side of Adelphia Coliseum, where Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau freely admitted it was his fault for asking running back Corey Dillon to throw a frozen football with an injured right pinky.

But what it means for next season for a franchise that hasn't had a winning season in 11 years is anyone's guess. One thing is certain. It's the first time in four years the Bengals have ended a season with a winning streak and there is a shot of adrenaline to help ease the pain of the seven-game losing streak that cost them everything.

"We have to make some decisions in the offseason," said Bengals defensive captain Takeo Spikes. "I see us going in the right direction. . . I feel like we're going to turn this thing around. We're finally learning how to win (games) at the end."

At 6-10, it's two more victories that Spikes and the class of '98 have ever enjoyed in Cincinnati and the best record since 7-9 in 1997.

"It's a moral victory and I'm not a big fan of those," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson. "I think it does give guys encouragement to know that we're close. There's a fine line. The Rams did it in one year. It will take us two. We'll work it out."

With LeBeau expected to announce Monday that there are no major changes to his coaching staff that has been pretty much intact since 1999, the Bengals figure to get roundly criticized for sitting still. The players didn't have much to say about the coaching situation, but quarterback Jon Kitna said it's a signal they should stick with him at quarterback despite throwing 10 more interceptions (22) than touchdowns (12).

"If you're not going to make any coaching changes, I don't think you

need to make many changes anywhere else," Kitna said. "Keep people together, the better you're going to be and that's especially the case at the quarterback position.

"You let him go through some of the bumps and the guys find out who he is," Kitna said. "Not only the players, but the coaches. They understand what the quarterback is all about. In the fourth quarter, you can trust him to give it his all when it looks like you're not going to win."

Even though some of his own teammates privately wonder if he's the answer, Kitna made a persuasive argument with his play in the last two games. He had the two best passing days of his career (411 last week and 340 Sunday) and continually got big plays from his receivers. He did what playoff quarterbacks do, engineering back-to-back fourth-quarter comebacks.

If the jury is still out on the quarterback, it's not on LeBeau. In the last two months, his team finally got that consistent "look," he has sought since he took over for Bruce Coslet 29 games ago. They played tough, hard, lived on defense, never laid an egg and were in every game even though they were out of the playoffs.

"He's our chief, he's our leader," said fullback Lorenzo Neal. "We just need to follow him. He'll get us there. We have to be disciplined and believe in what Coach LeBeau is preaching us."

Neal has never been with the Bengals for a full offseason, so he's interested to see what happens. He's urging his mates to show up in Cincinnati and work out together.

"The offseason begins now," Neal said. "We have to commit to the program and buy into it."

Spikes says he'll buy into for the long term if the price is right. It's believed the Bengals will try to sign him or middle linebacker Brian Simmons or both before their contracts are up after next season.

"Yeah, I'd like to stay," Spikes said. "I'm established here."

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