Sunday, September 19, 2004

National audience; new image

Playing again on Sunday night, Bengals no longer Bungles

By Mark Curnutte
Enquirer staff writer

Almost two years ago to the date, the Bengals had planned to change their image with a nationally televised Sunday night game in Atlanta. Instead, they cemented it as the most inept team in pro football.

"It was discouraging to observe," said former Bengals tight end Bob Trumpy, who was a broadcaster for the game on CBS Radio Sports/Westwood One.

The Bengals committed five penalties in the first 14 plays and went on to lose 30-3 to the Falcons. For a team accustomed to low scoring, the game was one of the most embarrassing in franchise history.

"And you just want to bring us right back down. You want to put us right back in the mud," defensive end Justin Smith said before practice Friday when asked about the debacle.

He is one of just 13 players of the 45 active that night that is still with the team.

"That's history, man," Smith said. "We ain't worried about that."

A great deal has indeed changed since Sept. 22, 2002 - the last time the Bengals played on Sunday night.

The game tonight against the Miami Dolphins, the Bengals' first in prime time at home since 1997, is not an image-maker or breaker.

Their image already has changed under coach Marvin Lewis.

"Now, no one considers them the Bungles any more," Baltimore Ravens general manager/executive vice president Ozzie Newsome told the Enquirer last week. "They're back to being the Bengals I played every year in Cleveland - contending for the playoffs."

After a 1-4 start in 2003, the Bengals went 7-4 and remained in the playoff hunt until the last game.

"At this time last year, there were still questions," Newsome said. "With what has transpired in the last 12 months, though, getting them to the last week, it's different."

The transformation started with Lewis' hiring in January 2003, a little more than two weeks after the worst season in franchise history - 2-14 - had ended.

The Bengals had the first pick in the 2003 draft and picked USC quarterback Carson Palmer.

The Bengals signed Palmer two days before the draft.

Then they sat him for a year.

"I like what they did with Carson," said Rich McKay, Falcons president and general manager.

In his previous role with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, McKay wanted to hire Lewis as head coach after the 2001 season.

"It's not easy to do what they did," McKay said. "Most teams would have played (Palmer). Instead they let (Jon) Kitna play, and he played very well, and they eased Palmer into the starting role."

The Bengals had rushed other first-round quarterbacks - David Klingler in 1992 and Akili Smith in 1999 - to disastrous results.

Because of how they handled Palmer, McKay said, "The Bengals looked like an organization with a definite plan."

With the blessing of Bengals president Mike Brown, Lewis began executing his broad-based plan to upgrade the organization - even before he coached his first game. He overhauled the weight room, brought in new assistant coaches while keeping the best off Dick LeBeau's staff and recruited veteran free agents who had won to change the locker-room attitude.

"Marvin was given the opportunity to change the culture," Newsome said. "But you can only do that if you're anointed by the owner."

A five-game home win streak resulted in five Paul Brown Stadium sellouts and a single-season home attendance record.

"Their image is improving and ever-changing," McKay said. "It's about earning credibility, and you do that by winning on Sunday."

Last season, the Bengals upset 9-0 Kansas City, one of three first-place teams they beat.

"They have sent a message to their fans that they have a chance. There's a momentum there," Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said.

"Competition is what makes this league special. There is hope going into every season. Every one of our games is on TV, and it's important that we are all competitive."

Trumpy, who will provide radio commentary tonight, sees better days ahead for the Bengals.

"They're a long way off," he said. "This is a scheme and talent league. They have a quarterback to build on. They have an offensive line to build on. What's best is the attitude of the franchise has changed.

"I think the players and coaches feel like they can do what they need to do without the suffocating approach taken by ownership before Marvin got here."



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