Thursday, September 18, 2003

One step forward, two steps back?


Lewis looks to break familiar cycle for Bengals fans

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Bengals have not won more than two games in a row since moving into Paul Brown Stadium in 2000.

In fact, they rarely have played more than two good games in a row since last making the playoffs in 1990.

Time after time, just when they appeared to have fans legitimately excited, the Bengals have let them down - with a thud.

BENGALS VS. STEELERS
When: 1 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Paul Brown Stadium.
Tickets: Sold out.
TV: Ch. 12, 7.
Radio: WCKY-AM (1360), WOFX-FM (92.5).
UPS AND DOWNS
Just when fans start to get excited, recent Bengals teams always have found a way to snuff out hope:
1992: The Bengals win the first two games under rookie head coach Dave Shula, then go 3-11 the rest of the way.
1995: With QB Jeff Blake having a Pro Bowl season, the Bengals can't net consecutive wins in the second half and finish 7-9.
1996: Under Bruce Coslet, the Bengals finish 7-2. But after winning their opener in 1997, they lose seven in a row.
1997: The Bengals win four of their last five with Boomer Esiason starting at QB, but Esiason retires for Monday Night Football.
1998: The team drops the Steelers 25-20 in Game 5, giving it a 2-3 mark and fueling playoff hopes. But the Bengals lose nine in a row and 10 of 11.
2001: Coach Dick LeBeau's team enters the bye at 4-3. But a seven-game losing streak drops the team to 4-10.
2002: LeBeau's team, coming off consecutive victories to wrap up 2001, is beaten 34-6 by San Diego in the home opener en route to a franchise-worst 2-14 record.
Mark Curnutte
The team, energized under first-year coach Marvin Lewis, finds itself at that crossroads again: Which way, Bengals? The answer will come Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bengals fans are enthused by the team's performance in the 23-20 loss at Oakland last week and appear ready to give away their hearts again. They've all but forgotten and forgiven the Bengals for their Week 1 blowout loss to Denver.

"And it shouldn't be that way," said offensive right tackle Willie Anderson, a Bengal since 1996. "That means we've been losing for such a long time."

Fans want badly for the Bengals to be good. They want to believe Lewis can resurrect the franchise and find the elusive consistency.

Consistency week to week is born of consistency play to play.

"We've got to be consistent," Lewis said after the Oakland game. "We had second-and-1 and we punted. We had second-and-20 and converted the first down. Our offensive third-down conversions were incredible, and defensively, the same on the other side. But when they converted was when they had the longest yardage of the day."

In the larger perspective, the 2003 Bengals under Lewis are not satisfied with playing well.

"Like Marvin says, moral victories are for losers," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson, a Bengal since 1999. "The thing is, expectations are a lot higher than they've been."

Said starting quarterback Jon Kitna: "It's just more of an expectancy that we're going to win games when we go out there, other than by just a handful of guys on the team. There's no question we're going to win soon. I just wonder when we get that first one, when it's going to stop."

Only once since 1990 have the Bengals entered November with a winning record. They were 4-3 in 2001 under Dick LeBeau after rallying to defeat the Lions 31-27 at Detroit.

The Bengals are 4-23 since winning that afternoon, Oct. 28. The 2001 team went from playoff contention to also-ran with a seven-game losing streak. The Bengals were outscored 68-20 in the first three games after beating the Lions.

"We were so happy that the city was off our backs that we got lax in every phase," Anderson said of the 2001 team. "I don't think Marvin is going to let us do that. Marvin came in (Monday) and pointed out all the things we did wrong (against Oakland). He wasn't pleased.

"In the past, it might have been, 'Good job, here are all the great things we did.' (Lewis) is letting us know he's not settling for less. We got complacent two years ago."

Each of the veteran unrestricted free agents signed by Lewis in the offseason had playoff experience: Those seven players brought 35 postseason games with them.

"This team, football-wise, is a lot more mature than teams I've been on as a Bengal in the past," said Gibson, who played in four postseason games with the Steelers. "I like the focus and composure we had (at Oakland). That's how you avoid the pitfalls."

E-mail mcurnutte@enquirer.com




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