The search is on

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals are looking for a seasoned NFL offensive coordinator who can stretch the imagination as well as the field on third down.

And if he wants to work with the quarterbacks, that's OK, too, even though former offensive coordinator Ken Anderson has been re-assigned to coach the position.

The field of candidates consists largely of NFL quarterbacks coaches, although the club has set up an interview for next week with former Steelers offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, a 12-year NFL veteran fired in Pittsburgh on
Wednesday.

Former Redskins head coach Norv Turner is the biggest name available, but he appears to have irons in the fire other than Cincinnati.

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau said Wednesday if the new coordinator wants to work with the Bengals quarterbacks, "that will be his option."

As for what would then happen with Anderson, LeBeau said, "Kenny is very knowledgeable. He is a storehouse of information. He led this team to the Super Bowl playing that position. Fitting in duties with him would not be a problem. He's an asset."

Quarterback Scott Mitchell, who started five of the last six games and is unsigned, is watching with interest.

"I'm curious to see who they bring in," Mitchell said. "Will it be a guy who has more of a system for Akili (Smith) or for me, or both? I'm a little disappointed they didn't tell me if they want me back next year, or if they just used me to play out the season. I guess we'll have to see who they hire."

Pittsburgh finished just two spots ahead of the last-place Bengals in NFL passing this season with the same mix of erratic quarterbacking in Kordell Stewart and inexperienced receivers.

Plus, Gilbride's system is similar to what the Bengals use in that the quarterback and receivers have to often read the defense during the play on option routes.

The Bengals had problems doing that, but Gilbride has a charismatic, creative background Cincinnati could use to inject into a lackluster pass offense.

And some Bengals insiders think the system might not be all at fault, but that they gave Smith too much of the system to handle as if he were Anderson or Boomer Esiason running it in their primes.

Plus, Smith said last week he's frustrated with plays that changed every week of the season and that the Bengals never practiced the plays they ran for weeks at minicamp and training camp once the regular season started.

What's clearly emerging from the Bengals' search is their desire for a change and for pro experience. They probably will talk to Smith's college coach, Oregon offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, but maybe not for the coordinator job.

Former Bengals and Buccanners coach Sam Wyche, who has talked this season with LeBeau about offense but not about a job, said the coordinator would almost have to be a pro guy given that the staff is already in place.

"That would probably be tough for Joe College to come in there with all these new ideas," Wyche said.

Receivers coach Steve Mooshagian, a former junior college head coach and college offensive coordinator before joining the Bengals two years ago, thinks it would be a tough adjustment coming out of college.

"You need somebody who knows what to do on third down," Mooshagian said. "You wouldn't believe how different the college game and the pro game is on third down. In the NFL, you see things you never imagined. First and second down is pretty much the same, but not third down."

Even though Wyche's name has been mentioned favorably inside the club, he's all but given up on getting an offer from the Bengals. And he doesn't think he could coach today on the practice field because of voice problems stemming from a vocal cord injury.

But his advice to LeBeau is to get Smith out of the pocket, "and let him use his running ability as a weapon almost every play."

Which is maybe why Gilbride's name intrigues them. Gilbride, who coached five top-rated NFL passing offenses at Houston and Jacksonville, had huge success with Warren Moon and Mark Brunell out of the pocket in many spread formations.

"We began to (get Smith out of pocket) as the season progressed," LeBeau said. "Some of our better plays were that and I think that fits Akili. We're going to look at everything that might fit any quarterback. We're going to expand the package. We're going to have more looks, do more things in terms of throwing the ball. We're going to change."

Gilbride, 49, made his mark

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** as the offensive coordinator of the Oilers' run-and-shoot teams of the early '90s before moving to Jacksonville in the same position in 1995-96.

His last two stops (a 6-16 record as Chargers head coach before moving to Pittsburgh) haven't been as successful, but the Bengals know he's had a better decade on offense than they have.

"I know Kevin Gilbride and I think he's a good coach," LeBeau said. "I would think it's something that we would take a look at and talk about.

"I've never worked with him, but I've coached against him and he can give a defensive coordinator a lot of problems."

On Tuesday, LeBeau ruled out only the run-and-shoot as a possible offensive scheme. But he said Wednesday he's not adverse to having some spread formations and putting in some out-of-pocket plays to highlight Smith's talents into an offense that trailed only Cleveland and San Diego in the AFC by converting just 33.9 percent on third down.

"Everybody's spreading it some these days," Lebeau said. "That's what we have to defend."

Gilbride ditched the run-and-shoot after leaving Houston, but had success spreading the field with a mobile quarterback in Jacksonville in Brunell.

"He used to be a run-and-shoot guy. He's not now," Brown said. "We know of Kevin Gilbride and know he's had teams that have scored a lot of points."

But Brunell could very well push for Gilbride to return and pick up being a buffer between the quarterback and head coach Tom Coughlin. The Jaguars haven't had an offensive coordinator since Chris Palmer left to coach the Browns.

Some outsiders wonder if a new scheme will already set back a young offense that couldn't figure out the old one.

Or, given that the only NFL system everyone on this staff has been exposed is this one, will the coaches also struggle?

"Football is football," LeBeau said. "We've got smart, bright guys who know the game and have been in the league a long time. We're going to change, but you don't need 15 new assistant coaches to change.

"These (coaches) went through the same season I did," LeBeau said. "That suits me fine. Let's come together as a staff, let's make changes, let's bring in some new thoughts and let's go."

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