Friday, August 04, 2000

Bengals open preseason with goal: Win

First game tonight in Buffalo

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Successful NFL teams don't need to win in the preseason. They have the luxury of playing starters for one or two series, maybe a quarter at most. Then they spend most of their time analyzing rookies and other unproven players.

        The Bengals have no such luxury. Game 1 is tonight in Buffalo against the Bills.

  • Where: Ralph Wilson Stadium, Orchard Park, N.Y.
  • When: Kickoff 7:30 p.m. today.
  • Television: WKRC-TV, Channel 12.
  • Radio: 1360 (WCKY-AM) and 92.5 (WOFX-FM).
  • What to look for: Second-year quarterback Akili Smith will play more than most NFL starting quarterbacks usually do in preseason games.
  • Series: The Bengals hold a 4-2 edge over the Bills in preseason games and a 2-0 lead in playoff games. Buffalo has won the last four regular-season games to pull even at 9-9. The Bills defeated the Bengals 30-3 in a preseason game in 1999 at Cinergy Field.
        “It would be helpful for us to win games in the preseason,” club president Mike Brown said. “If you have an established team, there isn't the emphasis put on it. But for us, it's different. We have to build from the bottom up. And part of that is re-establishing our confidence and getting to feel a little better about ourselves.”

        The Bengals, who open Paul Brown Stadium in two weeks, are trying to reverse their fortune. They're coming off a league-worst 52-108 decade.

        They were 0-4 in the preseason last year, their second winless preseason in 32 years.

        “We lost them all and look what it got us,” coach Bruce Coslet said of what became a 4-12 season. “Anytime you go on the field it's important to win. It's a learned trait.”

        The last time the Bengals had a winning preseason record was 1988. Cincinnati was 4-1 that year — including a victory in the Hall of Fame Game — en route to a 12-4 regular season, two playoff victories and the franchise's last Super Bowl appearance.

        In 1998, the Bengals followed a 1-3 preseason with a 3-13 record.

        “We're trying to win these games to build enthusiasm,” quarterback Akili Smith said.

        The Bengals' efforts to turn around are tied directly to Smith. After a contract holdout last season, the first-round 1999 draft pick played in seven games, starting four.

        Smith is expected to play more than most starting quarterbacks in preseason games.

        “We need to give Akili all the time he needs to get comfortable in his role,” Brown said. “And that's going to require him to be out there for a good part of the game.”

        How much? Coslet won't say.

        “I'm not going to predetermine it,” he said. “I'm going to play (Smith) until I take him out. Then he's going to have to be ready to go back in, just like everybody else on the team.”

        Smith looked uncomfortable more often than not in the team's intrasquad scrimmage Saturday at Georgetown, Ky.

        He completed seven of 11 passes for 95 yards and one touchdown, but he was sacked three times.

        Smith tried to make a big play on every snap.

        “The thing is I wanted to put on a good show. I can honestly say that,” he said of the scrimmage. “I was pressing too much. I learned from that.”

        Part of Smith's learning process after the scrimmage was watching game films of himself in high school and college ... “to tell myself to go out there and relax and have fun.”

        Smith wants to complete 60 percent of his passes tonight.

        He'll be without the Bengals' best receiver, veteran Darnay Scott, who suffered a season-ending broken leg at practice Tuesday.

        Cincinnati will face a Bills' defense that was ranked No.1 in the league last season and allowed only 229 points. The Bengals allowed the most, 460.

        The Bengals also will continue auditioning running backs to fill in for Pro Bowler Corey Dillon, who is locked in a contract dispute and has missed all of training camp.

        Brandon Bennett, who had one start in 1998 before missing all of 1999 with a knee injury, will start at running back. The No.2 man on the depth chart, Michael Basnight, broke his wrist in the scrimmage and will be out 10 weeks.

        Sedrick Shaw and rookie Curtis Keaton are the Bengals' other running backs.

        “Don't read anything into that,” Coslet said of Bennett's start. “We're going to make sure all the backs play. And then depending on who gets the most playing time this week, the other guys will get it next week. You can't play all of them the same amount in one game. You can maybe do two of them. It's a rotation.”

        Backup quarterback Scott Mitchell, a nine-year veteran who has played in Miami, Detroit and Baltimore, said there are more bigger prizes at stake than winning the preseason opener.

        “You're trying to build a positive attitude, but if you're expecting guys in the fourth quarter to win games for you ... those aren't the guys you're going to count on in the regular season. It's not realistic,” Mitchell said.

        He started two games for the Ravens last season after the team went through the preseason 4-0.

        “And we finished up 8-8,” Mitchell said. “You are looking for your top guys to play well. And if your No.2 guys play well, that's even better. That's means you've got depth.”


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