When a game really is 'big'

9-13-02, 5:00 p.m.

You could say Sunday is a big game because it is a referendum of sorts on the painstaking rebuilding job Dick LeBeau has pieced together over the last 30 games as the Bengals head coach.

You could say Sunday is a big game because any kind of a loss, as one player said this week, will open "the gates," to the here-we-go-again negativity. Maybe pitching Bengaldom into a 1789-like state in Paris with the ladders flung against the stadium walls.

You could say Sunday is a big game because just 10 percent of the teams that start 0-2 make the playoffs. Or it's a big game because the first AFC North Division game in history starts with everyone tied for first and last.

"It's a big game for the perception of the Bengals for the entire country," said right tackle Willlie Anderson this week as the Bengals coped with the 34-6 Opening Day stunner. "Everyone was starting to think we had got rid of it, and then to come out and lay an egg like that. . .just feeds the perception we have a team with sorry players.

"If we don't take out the perception," Anderson said, "guys are going to continue to get slighted for individual awards, we're not going to be on TV, and we're going to get the bad bye weeks. Whatever you complain about being the Bengals, we have to stop it."

It's a big game and take your pick why. LeBeau is feeing the heat because

he showed up Sunday with one of the oldest teams in the NFL with an average age of 26.4 and got the same results that Bruce Coslet did in 1999 with one of the NFL's youngest teams. The NFL average age on the 2002 Opening Day rosters is 26.4 exactly.

With one player 30 years old in '99, the Bengals got drilled, 34-7, in their home opener by a Chargers' team playing its first game under a new coach. On Sunday, with 10 players 30 and over (not to mention a salary cap at the nub), the Bengals got drilled, 34-6, in their home opener by a Chargers' team playing its first game under a new coach.

Not exactly progress.

But to LeBeau's immense credit, what he has been able to do better than Coslet is rally the troops when it is bleakest.

His first game is a prime example. Playing in the comatose state of a 74-7, 0-3 start in 2000, the Bengals led the Dolphins, 13-0, and led, 13-10, at the half before succumbing, 31-16.

"If the (head) coach didn't call a pass on the last play of the half," said LeBeau of the Dolphins' sack-fumble recovery-touchdown, "we probably would have won."

Also during LeBeau's first season, the Bengals responded to a shutout in Pittsburgh with their most points of the year and their first win, 31-21, over Denver the next week. After a 35-3 meltdown in Tennessee, the Bengals returned home to beat Jacksonville in the second coldest game ever in Cincinnati.

After getting blown out by the Bears, 24-0, last year to fall to 3-3, the Bengals absolutely needed a 31-27 win in Detroit the next week before their bye. After a sideline mutiny that spilled into the locker room following a 16-0 washout in Baltimore, the Bengals ended the season with their two most prolific offensive victories in years.

If there is a guy who can get the Bengals out of this tunnel with calm and grit, you're talking to him. He has tamed more disasters than movie mogul Irwin Allen in the wreck of the '70s.

"It won't happen again," LeBeau repeated Friday. "We're going to get there, I'm going to tell you that." P>His collar became a bit inflamed when reporters wouldn't let go of last Sunday. He wasn't The Grinch about it. It's just that the questions were getting in the way of his theory of rebuilding play-by-play and step-by-step without acknowledging the past or future.

Of course, everyone, his players included, thought the rebuilding-from-disaster days were finally gone. The closest Bengals President Mike Brown will ever come to publicly criticizing coaches or players came when he said the San Diego loss, "shattered our confidence."

"Chris Berman came out and picked us to win last week," said Anderson of the ESPN talking head who has patented the term "Bungles," into the ground. "He thought we were over it and then we go out and lay an egg like that."

You can't blame Berman or anyone else. Cornerback Artrell Hawkins, who has never seen better than 6-10, knows what's coming if Sunday doesn't turn out better.

"People want answers to questions. Is it going to be another 0-6 start or will it be 1-1 and the first game was just a fluke," Hawkins said. "The same old crap could happen. We try not to be affected by it, but when it's all around you, even the strongest-minded of men fall to a dash of negative criticism.

"We don't want that to happen," Hawkins said. "We want the fans to be comfortable and we want to feel successful. We don't want to hear the talk of an 0-6 start. We have to answer the bell."

This is when LeBeau is at his best. Anderson noticed this week.

"He talked to us about how our manhood was tested. It got tested last week and we didn't execute under pressure," Anderson said. "We have to do a better job and the only way to do that is work and not talk about it."

After his unit got rolled for 241 yards on the ground, defensive tackle Oliver Gibson could only blame one guy.

"I've been in the league eight years," Gibson said. "Coach LeBeau didn't tell me to line up offsides twice. We're a veteran team. We've got a lot to prove."

That can be a reason it's a big game. As Mike Brown said watching Friday's practice, "It puts you behind the 8-ball all year if you lose the first two."

Which is another reason Sunday is a big game.

It's now up to Charles Richard LeBeau to turn mush into magic one more time.

The stakes are probably at the highest of his 30-game regime, which also began in rubble.

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