Vets fear time out

12-26-02, 8 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With less than 72 hours left in the season, there are Bengals' veterans who feel time is running out on their chances to ever make it to the playoffs as they show the emotional wear and tear of a spin cycle that has now hit 12 straight non-winning seasons.

"I can't do this another year," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "It's seven years, man. You're going to figure a lineman's got 10-11 years, max. That's three more years I've got. That's just three years."

Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon has logged six losing seasons and he takes no solace in the 1,258 yards he has racked up in this, his third best season even if his bruised elbow gives him limited time Sunday in Buffalo. At 28, he knows he's got the same timetable as Anderson, and it's now or never.

"I'm never going to go through another season like this, Never," Dillon said. "I don't even like going out to the grocery store. I really don't like going out because I get all these questions about this and that and I don't have the answers. I'm tired. I'm tired of trying to make it sound like something it isn't. I can't do it anymore."

These are two core players talking, guys who have signed contract extensions to be here well beyond this season. It doesn't surprise fourth-year quarterback Akili Smith.

"Guys are fed up with the losing," Smith said. "There has to be drastic changes. The losing is sucking the life out of me. I need to revive my

career and I think it may have to be somewhere else. I like my teammates, I like some of my coaches, but something has to happen."

Players are cautious about saying what should happen, either because of the loyalty clause that allows the Bengals to recoup all or parts of a signing bonus if the player makes remarks critical of the club, or because they simply don't know what should happen. As wide receiver Chad Johnson admitted, "I'm confused. It's a tough thing."

And the indications that a major coaching change is on the way seems to do little to excite the veterans because they probably see it as another rebuilding effort in series of rebuilding efforts.

Anderson and Dillon emphasized they aren't calling out the organization, coaches, or teammates, but all they know is they can't stand the misery.

"I'm just going to go home and put the block on my phone for any number that pops up 513," Dillon said. "I'm not answering. I'm disconnecting myself. I've got to get away. I don't even want to think about next season."

Smith has been thinking about next season because he's hoping he's not here, even though all indications are he'll be the No. 2 quarterback behind Jon Kitna. If he is back, he'd like to see the coaches taken off the scouting trail.

"There are some good coaches on the staff. People know who they are. Mike (Brown) needs to evaluate that and go from there," Smith said. "He's been very loyal to these coaches and you know the loyalty factor with Mike because he has been loyal to these guys for a long time.

"It's just not the coaches," Smith said. "It's a lot of things. The coaches have to scout and leave here (during the spring). You can't do things like that."

Smith understands why Brown would keep him for the next two seasons as a backup. If he doesn't play enough, he won't hit his incentives and he'll be a minimum salary player.

Still, Smith says he's looking forward to two days in the offseason: The April 26-27 draft and the June 1 salary cap date. He figures if they draft a quarterback, he's gone, and after June 1 the team can cut him and only be charged what is believed to be about $1.8 million under the 2003 cap.

"It's a good business investment," Smith said. "He has to worry about other things. I'm just a player trying to help him boost his business. As a business move. . .I know what he's thinking."

But no one seems to know what Brown is thinking when it comes to possible changes Monday, the day after the season. Smith says, "everybody knows what they are," yet no one really wants to name them. All they know is something has to change.

Dillon says he won't retire ("The game is too nice to retire. I'm still young,") but where is the pot of gold?

"I can't see the rainbow any more," Anderson said. "You play hard, do your thing, but I'm at the point I can't see any more. . .I'll try to get (refreshed in the offseason). . .but I know I can't go through it another year. "

Some players have characterized the locker room as "a sick room," where the losing is so embedded that they can't get well. Things are definitely different this year.

One of the other core players, inside linebacker Takeo Spikes, spent the first four seasons as a team spokesman. But he has shied away from the media the second half of this season with his free agency looming and wouldn't discuss what could have been his last home Bengals' game last week and his last Bengals' game period this week.

"I'm not pushing for change either way," said Anderson, admitting he'll have difficultly regrouping in the offseason. "But I'd be lying if I said I didn't."

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