Sunday, July 28, 2002

DAUGHERTY: Bengals have one believer anyhow

        GEORGETOWN, Ky. — This is the year. The ship comes in, the number you've played every week for the last 12 years finally hits. Lucy leaves the damned ball on the ground. Neil Rackers kicks it. This is the year.

        OK. Giving your heart to the Cincinnati Bengals is like giving your dirty joke book to Captain Kangaroo. My name is Fidel, trust me with your democracy. Mike Brown inspires cynicism the way sunrise stokes a rooster.

        These are the Bengals, and legacies die hard.

        But this is the year.

        “When I got here, guys weren't coming to Cincinnati,” said Willie Anderson. The Bengals right tackle has been here since 1996, worked for Dave Shula and Bruce Coslet and still decided to re-sign with the team before last year. This is a man who sees rainbows in a tornado.

        “Guys didn't believe in Shula or Coslet,” Anderson said. “(Carl) Pickens said he thought Coslet quit a couple times during games. Then (Coslet) did quit (after the third game in 2000). When I got here, I heard, "You're going to a team where guys don't give a damn.' Those guys are gone now.”

        Everyone is in camp. Everyone is signed. Anderson says for the first time in his seven years, “every guy here wants to be here.”

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau tries to get things moving on the second day of training camp.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        The talent is playoff caliber. There is decent competition at QB. There is better competition in the secondary. There are enough wide receivers the Bengals could wave goodbye to Darnay Scott. What that said about this year was, “If you don't want to be here, we don't want you.” This is not a message this organization has sent before, to any good player. Remember how James Francis emasculated Coslet?

        Anderson sat at a morning meeting, looked around the room and saw just one face from his rookie year, center Rich Braham. “Back then, guys would say, "I've got to get out of here.' Coaches would say things and players would never do them. Now the coaches are teaching and the players want to learn,” Anderson said.

        The well-deserved response to this is, “Yeah, right.” But starting with the drafting of linebacker Takeo Spikes in '98, the Bengals began reacquiring a heart.

        (They still might not have a quarterback. But you have to start somewhere.)

        Slowly, the dead wood was swept out, the final hunk being Scott. The Bengals see with fresh eyes.

        Maybe, finally, they really are too young to remember The Lost Decade, too eager for a job to ponder the corrosive effects of nonstop losing. Maybe after the twin disasters of Shula and Coslet, Dick LeBeau has the players' trust. His optimism, at least, is different. “Coaching with bright eyes,” Anderson calls it. “You know there's not an ounce of quit in his body. All 80 guys feel it.”

        Anderson likes to point to the last two games of last season, meaningless but for the effort. The Bengals beat the Steelers and won at Tennessee with the customary nothing on the line. “Whatever,” Anderson said. “Guys played their (butts) off. There's some pride here that wasn't here before.”

        It won't mean much if Gus Frerotte or Jon Kitna checks out with a QB rating of 65. Good people still have to be good players, and the Bengals goofed royally by not signing Drew Bledsoe. But after years of building for a future that never came, they at least have a chance this year. Hope springs infernal here every autumn. At least this year, there's a reason for it.

       Contact Paul Daugherty at 768-8454; e-mail


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