Unhappy campers

12-29-02, 10:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. _ Lorenzo Neal, the Bengals' lone Pro Bowler, couldn't stifle his all-star cackle from breaking into unrestrained laughter in the post-game locker room when Corey Dillon said, "See you at Georgetown next year, Zo."

It seemed that no one had the next training camp on their minds Sunday here in the locker room of the worst Bengals' team ever. Which the Buffalo Bills certified resoundingly at 2-14 with a 27-9 dismissal in front of the blue-and-red faithful at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Dillon, who has played in more 100-yard games (27) than victories (26) in his six years, continued to no comment his way through a season that has clearly angered him and sapped the joy out of the $5 million per five-year deal he signed before the 2001 season.

"I'm going home," said Dillon simply, leaving the Bengals' underachieving running game as one of the hot off-season topics with his 53 yards on 13 carries.

And the guys who were talking, like free-agents Neal and Takeo Spikes, made it clear they aren't optimistic enough about the future to think about coming back in 2003.

"I've been here five years, playing for pride every year. It takes a toll on you man, it takes a toll," said Spikes after he showered, if it is his last game as a Bengal, why he has been so valuable with a game-high 12 tackles and half a sack from his right outside linebacker spot. "I do want to win and I do want to compete. Right now, we're not competing and not winning and that upsets me."

Not exactly the Garden of Eden, and most observers expect it to get worse Monday when Dick LeBeau isn't retained as head coach. On Sunday, his players called for the organization to make unspecified changes after a season in which they finished in sole possession of

last place in the NFL for the first time in the 35 seasons of the franchise.

"It has to be, from the top to the bottom, a re-commitment to want to win," Neal said. "You have to change the attitude of a lot of players. You have to get players that have been on winning teams. You've got to change the (attitude) of this team. You have to go out and get some winners. Guys who have won. . . guys who have been to the show. Guys who have been to playoff runs.

"I think the (Brown family is) aware of that. I think they want to win."

LeBeau thought he was bringing in those kind of players for his first full season as head coach in 2001. That's when the club signed Neal from a Tennessee team that had lost six games in the previous two seasons, defensive tackle Tony Williams from Dennis Green's perennial playoff Vikings, and left tackle Richmond Webb straight from Dan Marino's Hall-of-Fame blindside.

But after getting off to a 4-3 start in 2001, the Bengals have lost 21 of the last 25 games, while former Bengals have ripped the conditioning and intensity of the team.

Willie Anderson, the seventh-year right tackle who has played in more games than any current Bengal, isn't sure what is going to happen Monday. But he knows what happened this year.

"We need a shock," Anderson said. "We need a shock from new players. Last year we brought in a new wave of guys that brought some energy and helped us in signing guys like Tony Williams, Lorenzo Neal and Richmond Webb. We didn't have that new infusion of guys (this year), and that hurt us."

Spikes did a nice job of marketing himself to a Bills' team that needs some impact linebackers during its free-agency shopping. The crowd made sure Spikes knew as pockets of Bills' followers along the sidelines urged Spikes to come north next season.

"I felt like I was (playing) at home," Spikes said, and he said all the right things to the Upstate media, like, "They've had a good transition getting Drew Bledsoe here this past year and they're building the defense. Who knows? Have to see where the road takes us."

Spikes' road Sunday was pretty much the track he's worn in his previous 78 Bengals' games. On one play, he got a good whack on Bledsoe just as he threw the ball and Spikes was thinking, "Turnover." Instead, it was a pass interference call on the secondary.

"It breaks your spirit," said Spikes of those kinds of plays that have dotted his career. The Bengals gave up 456 points this season, smack in the middle of the franchise-record 460 they gave up in Spikes' second season (1999), which beat the 452 in his rookie season of 1998.

"If I was a gas tank that measured how much gas is in me," Spikes said, "it would be past E. I'd be running on fumes."

But he had enough steam to come full circle. On the 12th play of the pre-season opener here back on Aug. 9, Spikes tore his pectoral muscle trying to sack Bledsoe. He didn't play again until the regular-season opener and didn't get his bearings until some weeks into the season. But he started all 16 games, led the team in tackles for the fourth straight year, and apparently likes the lure of the open market.

"I don't want to answer that," said Spikes, when asked if he wants to come back.

Neal said he has to wait and see how the offseason unfolds.

Quarterback Jon Kitna knew what that meant as he continued to harp on his change-the-attitude theme of the last half of this season.

"Until you have a majority of your team expecting to win every football game you go play, you're going to have a tough time," Kitna said. "If you're just out there waiting for somebody else to make a play, or expecting something bad to happen, bad things are going to happen.

"Whatever it is," Kitna said, "look hard at the organization, look at everyone involved, do what gives us the best chance to win and develop the attitude I'm talking about."

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