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Weight off the chest

Artrell Hawkins doesn't so much remember that out route where he stepped in front of someone named Corey Bradford in the Reliant Stadium end zone and went the other way to join Louis Breeden in the Bengals record book.

All he pretty much remembers six years after his 102-yard interception return was the biggest play in the team's first win of 2002 is the relief.

"Like a weight off the chest," Hawkins recalled Monday. "Just the other day I came across a newspaper story that kind of mocked me for saying it felt great to be 1-7. You know what I meant. When you don't win, you forget that feeling. You forget what it feels like and it's just great to win again."

Hawkins takes off down the sideline on his 102-yard return against the Texans. (Getty Images)
Hawkins found himself reminiscing last week because the '08 Bengals were in the exact same position: No wins in seven games and headed to Houston. But his team won, 38-3, and this team lost by almost the same margin, 35-6, and Hawkins doesn't understand it, either.

"For one thing, you look at Carson Palmer in the locker room and right away it's a better team than that one," Hawkins said. "I look at Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and it's a better team. On paper, it's a much better team. But ... "

Hawkins, the Bengals second-round pick in 1998 after he helped the University of Cincinnati to its first bowl game in nearly 40 years, has been around since that Houston end zone. He's into his third month of retirement after he walked into Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum's office in August and told him he couldn't do it on his knees any more.

He couldn't tell head coach Eric Mangini because Mangini had already talked him into staying twice so he had to go over his head. Mangini remembered how Hawkins had helped hold his battered secondary together in New England well enough to help the Patriots to an AFC title game.

"I showed up one day and a week later I was playing safety and I ended up playing 25 games there," Hawkins said of the run in '05 and '06. "It was a tremendous experience playing for a guy like Bill Belichick."

Those are moments that Hawkins remembers now, for the most part, and not that David Carr pass. He has settled into Cincinnati with his wife and children and he is simply an observer at what is happening at Paul Brown Stadium after he left at the end of the 2003 season.

"I know a lot of the coaches. I know a lot of those players. I know how much they want to win. I still see some of the guys around town like Robert Geathers," Hawkins said. "I tell them to hang in there. Now is the time where you've got to go above and beyond in the film room and everywhere else and get as much focus as you can."

He's not having flashbacks or anything like that. But there is one thing familiar that he doesn't like.

"The constant badgering of the players and coaches; that's tough," Hawkins said. "The pressure in something like this is extremely hard. From your own family. From the community. It's pretty much all you hear. It's hard on you and you really can't get away from it."

The '08 Bengals at 0-8 may be better on paper than the 1-7 Bengals that finished with the worst record in franchise history. But these Bengals are on pace to finish with the fewest yards since the 1968 expansion team with just over 3,600. Their projected rush total of just 1,244 is destined to be the historic low. The defense is on pace to finish with the sixth-most points allowed in club history with 434. The '02 team had the '08 Bengals beat there with 456 (second most), but they gave up fewer than the projected yards.

"We know by now it's a lot more than talent," said Hawkins, whose old Patriots team is a 5-2 with a backup quarterback. "Talent is obviously a part of it, but when it comes to the results it's chemistry and preparation and all that goes into it."

Hawkins is convinced the '08 Bengals will feel the same feeling he did at one point: The rock coming off the chest.

"The tough thing is that now they're in the survival mode and that doesn't always get the best football," Hawkins said. "But I don't buy that they've quit down there. I don't see that."

A lot of water has gone under the bridge and it was only one win. But it was a heck of a feeling.

"Believe me, it wasn't great to be 1-7," he said. "But just to be able to get one good night's sleep and not lay awake. That was nice."

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