Trying to stop magic and history

9-28-01, 3:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

If ageless Dick LeBeau is the Dick Clark of the NFL, then the Bengals see the league's answer to Tina Turner Sunday when Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie faces them for the third time in 13 years.

Flutie tries to go to 3-0 against them on a day the Bengals try to start a season 3-0 for the first time since 1990.

The legs that have tortured a couple of generations of Bengals' defensive linemen are still high grade. And Flutie, who turns 39 next month, is so old that he turned the hair gray of a couple of Bengals' defensive assistants 20 years ago when he was at Boston College and Bengals defensive coordinator Mark Duffner and cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle had the same jobs at Holy Cross.

"He looks much like he did when he won the Heisman Trophy in 1984," Duffner said after watching a week's worth of tape on the latter day Flutie throwing for 353 yards against the Cowboys last week. "I used to say he has eyes in the back of his head. He has a knack of finding receivers and making the right decision in terms of scrambling or passing. I haven't been on a team that's beaten him yet."

Dave Lapham, the Bengals' radio analyst, saw those eyes from the front during the season they were teammates in the USFL with the 1985 New Jersey Generals.

"He'd get this look on his face," Lapham said. "Almost like this blank look where you knew some magic was going to happen. He'd get in a zone a little bit with his eyes and his face and something was going to happen here with Flutie."

Defensive line coach Tim Krumrie was a Pro Bowl nose tackle in 1988 when Flutie spoiled the Bengals' unbeaten season by busting a third-and-18 on a quarterback draw late in the game.

"Sure, you remember something like that," Krumrie said. "You think you've got him and then you don't. I would describe him as a winner. You can't run a lot of stuff because he'll split you. You have to take his vision away and get hands in his face."

Krumrie's guys have been one of the bright spots in the 2-0 start with a

consistent pass rush that kept pocket passers Drew Bledsoe and Elvis Grbac from picking on the Bengals' secondary. But Flutie can throw it from anywhere anytime, so Krumrie's seven-man rotation should be helpful on a hot Southern California day they try to chase down Flutie.

"The rotation is what's helped us stay fresh the whole game," said end Bernard Whittington. "I haven't been on a line that rotated as much, but that's good. These guys can all play."

Whittington and Reinard Wilson, the other starting end, got a little more than half the 90 or so snaps last Sunday. Vaughn Booker and rookie Justin Smith got the balance, while Glen Steele spelled starting tackles Tony Williams and Oliver Gibson so that they only took about 60 to 70 snaps.

The Bengals can use Whittington's experience against Flutie because he played against Buffalo twice a year while playing for the Colts.

"He's a jackrabbit," Whittington said. "You give him a lane and he's gone. He's unbelievably fast. I remember one game against Buffalo we knocked out Rob Johnson and Flutie came in and killed us with his scrambling and running. He changed the game."

Flutie isn't running as much as he once did with 15 yards on 10 carries this season. But he has shown a knack of sidestepping pressure and staying in the pocket.

"He doesn't run down field with it as much as he did," Coyle said. "But when he scrambles, he likes to throw the ball deep. He's very good at it and made a lot of big plays that way. Once he starts moving around in the pocket, the cornerbacks have to keep their depth and not take their eyes off the receiver and looking in the backfield because their receivers know they've got a guy like that and they do a good job looking to get open. You can't give up a big play on a play that is well defended."

When Flutie threw for 318 yards in the Bills' 33-20 win over the Bengals in 1998, rookie linebackers Brian Simmons and Adrian Ross intercepted Flutie as the Bengals clogged the middle of the field to shut off Flutie's passing lanes that are narrow because of his sidearm delivery.

But it was the long pass that conquered the Bengals that day as Flutie bought enough time so receiver Eric Moulds could get past the secondary on touchdown passes of 70 and 30 yards. Flutie rushed for just 21 yards on five carries.

"Some people in the league think you can take certain things from him," Lapham said. "Some of the intermediate stuff and I don't think people think he doesn't throw a real accurate deep ball. I remember our first practice in New Jersey, our receivers had to make that adjustment. He would throw it in the rush lanes and they wouldn't see the release of the ball coming out. All of a sudden it was out of a mass of bodies. Here comes the football. You figure his release point is at about 5-6, 5-7."

But that said, Lapham says Flutie is the most improvisational player he's ever seen. There might have been some downside to pass protecting for him because his scrambling made it difficult to know where he was at all times.

"But nine out of 10 times when he did vacate the pocket, it was the right decision," Lapham said. "This guy isn't a liability if you want to win a Super Bowl. He wins games. Put him with a good defense like he has in San Diego and he'll win a lot of games."

How can you stop a guy whose view of crunch time is almost mystical?

"I was talking to John Havlicek about it once," said Flutie of the Boston Celtics great. "He said in those situations, it just seems like everyone slows down a little bit and that's (where the) extra fraction of a second to make your decision. All it is that your focus is that much keener.

"I honestly believe in pressure situations, in a two-minute drill, or the last minute in a game, that focus and concentration go to another level. I wish I could bottle that for 60 minutes."

All the generations of the Bengals are hoping they can bottle up Flutie long enough to get their first win against him.

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