What's next?

BY GEOFF HOBSON

To a man, the players said it was a step in the right direction.

But some of the bigger players are looking for bigger steps from the Bengals' organization and they think Dick LeBeau can help take them there as a head coach in his own right.

"What we've been doing around here in the offseason just hasn't cut it. Point-blank," said linebacker Takeo Spikes, the defensive captain.

"And after this last game, that's what is going to be next. We won't get any better as a team if we do what we've been doing. But keeping Coach LeBeau, that's a step in the right direction."

LeBeau is willing to listen. He told offensive captain Willie Anderson he wants a meeting with him and Spikes to discuss the offseason. He's willing to go to them in their hometown of Atlanta to talk.

Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon also called it a good step. He even called it a good move in chess.

John Jackson, the left tackle who played in Pittsburgh when LeBeau was the Steelers' Super Bowl defensive coordinator, said, "Dick has to put his stamp on this team. And he will. He'll bring in a program where guys are going to have to win or they won't be here."

The most immediate ways a coach stamps his team is what he demands in the offseason and who he puts on his coaching staff. After Sunday's game in Philadelphia, those are LeBeau's two priorities.

And he emphasized he'll consult with Bengals President Mike Brown, but that he'll get the say on his own coaches.

The working assumption is the Bengals could be in the market for a new offensive system at least a new passing game because of the struggles of quarterback Akili Smith and its No. 31 rank in passing yards.

"I won't talk about the coaches until after the season," said LeBeau Wednesday night, after a brief staff meeting in which he thanked them but didn't say much about their futures.

"We're looking at everything," LeBeau said. "We have to get better at a lot of things. Rushing the passer, stopping the pass, getting turnovers. We can run the ball and we can defend the run, but we need to get turnovers, interceptions. We need to improve on a lot of things."

It's the first time in franchise history a defensive coach goes into a season as the head man, so it figures LeBeau will be hiring to fill his own spot of defensive coordinator.

He said Wednesday he'll delegate more responsibility, but he also wants to stay involved. Linebackers coach Mark Duffner is the likely choice to move in as the coordinator if LeBeau stays in-house.

But on Tuesday night the assistants wouldn't say much beyond the fact they're happy for LeBeau.

"He should have got his shot long before this," said secondary coach Ray Horton, who along with defensive line coach Tim Krumrie played for LeBeau in Super Bowl XXIII.

"There's some guys who got (head coaching) jobs on his coat tails, but this is well earned. He's the right guy for the job. He loves it here."

But the assistants wouldn't comment on their contract status, or don't know what's next.

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"I don't know what's going to happen," said special teams coach Al Roberts. "I've been here before. In Houston when Jerry Glanville came in after he replaced Hugh Campbell and everyone else got fired. Who knows? But I'm loyal to the Bengals and Dick LeBeau."

Asked if the assistants knew any more Wednesday night than they did Wednesday morning, LeBeau said, "they should feel better because they know the guy is acquainted with them and has a knowledge of how hard they've worked."

If LeBeau changes the offense, that could impact if starting quarterback Scott Mitchell wants to return or if the new coach thinks Mitchell fits.

LeBeau has always been a big private and public backer of Smith. But on Wednesday he didn't say that his new long-term deal would allow him to put Smith back into the No.1 job next year as he continues to learn.

Asked if his new deal put the ball back in Smith's court, LeBeau said, "The ball's never been too far from his court. He's a very talented young man and we are in no way giving up on Akili Smith.

"We're going to go with the guy who gives us the best chance to win. If he's here, or yet to come. It makes no difference to me. I think we potentially have a very good quarterback situation with the guys we have right here. And I underline, 'potential.'"

Willie Anderson and Spikes are ready to give LeBeau their ideas on the offseason. Although the Bengals emerged from the Dark Ages in the four offseasons under Bruce Coslet as far as voluntary workouts go, Anderson would like to see the entire team here for a few weeks at a time long before to work on non-football aspects. Such as in March and April.

"I think Dick is a winner and he'll install the programs that are going to make us a winner," Willie Anderson said. "Guys would come I think if they liked the program. Things that would make us stronger, quicker, faster. So when we play a team like Baltimore we don't get outmatched physically.

"That's stuff you can't do at minicamp, where you just run plays," Anderson said. "Dick told the players to give input to the captains and he'll listen to suggestions on anything, so we'll see what happens."

LeBeau has been pleased with the attendance at the voluntary workouts in May and June the past few seasons and says it was the reason he was able to change the defensive scheme a few times before training camp.

"I think we're over that hill on that," LeBeau said. "I don't see a problem there."

But LeBeau admitted he has been taking notes during his 42 years in the NFL as a player and assistant coach in developing his own program.

"You file stuff away in your mind," LeBeau said. "Actually, many of the things come from years here because we have been successful. We were successful in Pittsburgh. Now it's time to go back and open those files."

But he won't do it until after this Sunday's game. When he was asked one more question about the coaching staff Wednesday night, he said, "I already told you. That won't be discussed until after the game in Philadelphia."

And he stood up to go back to work.

After an autumn in limbo, the LeBeau Era had officially began as the first day of winter knocked.

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