9-8-03, 12:40 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
There was no getting away from it.
The Bengals were stunned at the size of the egg they produced at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday. For the best prepared and most well-conditioned Bengals' team in the free-agency era, the 30-10 loss to the Broncos in Marvin Lewis' head-coaching debut had them talking to themselves because it was so inexplicable.
And they know what it means.
"Now we have to hear about it because of the history of this team," said defensive tackle John Thornton. "If this team went to the Super Bowl and lost the first game, nobody would be saying anything. People are going to be saying it's the same thing, but it's not."
Middle linebacker Kevin Hardy felt the disappointment acutely. There had been the sell-out crowd, the overhauled organization, the Marvin Lewis billboards, and yet the same numbing result.
"It's a big disappointment I'm sure to the fans and people behind us, and it's a huge disappointment to us. We put all the work in and just didn't get it done," Hardy said. "(Lewis') message was this is one game of a long season. You can't let one game put you down for the rest of the season. We'll hear about it, but he said we've got to come in here tomorrow to get ready to play Oakland."
Lewis tried to get out in front of the skyline-is-falling mentality in his post-game autopsy.
"That is history. The history of this team is history," Lewis said. "We are here for the long haul. This is not a sprint; it is more like a marathon, or a journey.
We are going to rebuild upon a solid foundation and base. The thing our guys did today is they hung together as a football team, and that was important."
Lewis apparently didn't spew at them as he did after the pre-season opener. Quarterback Jon Kitna said the theme was unity and it's just the start of the race.
"He was Marvin. Normal. Not happy, but you can't blow up after one game," Thornton said.
And with good reason. On Friday, they get on a plane to the West Coast, where they haven't won since the first Bush presidency, to play the AFC champion Raiders in Oakland, where they have never won in eight games starting in the first season of the franchise.
"There's still hope and that's coming from Marvin," Kitna said. "He's telling us everything that went wrong is fixable. It's not like you're just outmanned and you don't have the right guys, so there's hope. Guys are very (encouraging) to one another. There are no sides being drawn up already. It's a together team."
But does it have the makings of a good team and what do openers mean?
Paul Brown lost his first game as Bengals coach and had them in the playoffs two years later. Forest Gregg lost his first two games and four of his first five, but took them to the Super Bowl the next season. Sam Wyche lost his first five, but took them to a 10-win season two years later. Dave Shula won his first two games, but couldn't hang around long enough to win 20. Bruce Coslet won his first three and seven of his first nine, but finished 18 games under .500.
Lewis prides himself on sticking to his plan no matter the adversity. One of the reasons he admires Colts head coach Tony Dungy is he didn't deviate from his foundation even though he lost his first five games as a head coach.
"I'm not carrying Marvin to the hospital on a stretcher right now," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "Marvin's been to the Super Bowl. He knows what it takes to win. He's experienced setbacks. He's experience failure. He's not dead to me. It's week one.
"I'm not giving up," Hawkins said. "I'm sure Marvin isn't going to give up. Everything in this locker room and on the field has his name on it. He's been there before. He wants to get a championship ring for his team."
In one corner of the locker room, defensive tackle Oliver Gibson mused about the unity during the game and how they still scrounged for three interceptions despite the score, and how in his rookie year his Steelers fell to 3-5 with a loss to – of all teams – Cincinnati, before they went to the Super Bowl.
"I know you're going to think this is strange," said Gibson, "But at no time did anybody feel we couldn't come back. It's a long road in this league."
In another nook, right tackle Willie Anderson looked into his locker and said, "It's going to change. It's going to change. People don't believe it, but it's going to change."
But as Anderson also said, "We only have ourselves to blame," and it looks like they have to get a little aggressive about it. Thornton said the Bengals were waiting for something good to happen and "when it didn't, we hit kind of a lull."
Kitna also sensed the Bengals were waiting around, and he hopes a road trip to one of the perennial contenders is what they need.
"You better get ready," Kitna said. "It's just not going to take care of itself. Having the new pants, playing at home, and being in the opener, it's not going to take care of itself. You have to take care of what you take care of, so hopefully that will happen for us going on the road. Maybe our focus will be better and will get the job done."
It's a tall task. The Bengals got beat in Oakland, 31-10, in 1968, and they're 0-7 since there. The last time they won on the Left Coast was in 1990 when Boomer Esiason threw for 490 yards against the Los Angeles Rams on Oct. 9, 1990. They've won four road games in the last three years and have the NFL's worst road record since 1993 at 16-64.
But that gets into history and emotion and Lewis wants nothing of the kind.
"Emotion doesn't last very long," Lewis said. "Yelling and screaming doesn't fix what is wrong. You have to go correct what is wrong. If I am yelling and screaming, they are just going to go put their tails between their legs. You don't yell at your kids, you know, it doesn't help them."