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Pinned Stripes

Bengals, off to another 0-6 start, are the NFL's laughingstock, and there doesn't appear to be any light at the end of the tunnel

October 20, 2002|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Dave Lapham played 10 seasons on Cincinnati's offensive line and has spent the last 12 covering every Bengal game as a radio analyst.

The first job punished his body; the second punished his soul.

The Bengals are 0-6 for the fifth time since 1991 and are on pace to score the fewest points, and give up the most, in franchise history. Several times this season, Lapham has overheard visiting assistant coaches in their booth laughing -- laughing! -- about the Bengals' ineptitude.

"Some guys come out of their college programs with life in their eyes," Lapham said. "They're here for a few years and they become Stepford Bengals. The life just gets sucked out of their eyeballs."

Lest you think Lapham is speaking out of turn -- he works for the team's flagship station, after all -- consider what he has had to endure. The Bengals have been outscored by an average of 30-9 this season, and have fallen behind by at least 20-0 in all but one game. They haven't scored an offensive touchdown in the first quarter and, in six games, have enjoyed a lead for 2 1/2 minutes.

"To see the manner in which they're losing is sickening," Lapham said. "If they don't care, why the hell should I?"

That sentiment seems to have taken hold in the city that supplied the Bengals with a $450-million stadium three years ago, encouraged by the notion the team would become more competitive with a state-of-the-art venue. But the team is 10-28 since moving into 65,600-seat Paul Brown Stadium and has sold out the place only seven times in 19 home games.

"I've watched this franchise for 12 years," said Paul Daugherty, sports columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer. "I ran out of adjectives for lousy about five years ago."

The big news in Cincinnati last week was what didn't happen -- Coach Dick LeBeau didn't lose his job, as many people thought he would after such a horrendous start. Mike Brown, who doubles as owner and general manager, is notoriously slow to fire coaches. Dave Shula's teams were 19-52 before he was shown the door; when an 0-3 start in 2000 ran his coaching record to 21-39, Bruce Coslet wasn't fired but left in disgust.

Now, the yoke -- and the joke -- is on LeBeau, a kind and likable man who took over for Coslet two years ago, at age 63, making him the oldest rookie coach in league history. The former Detroit cornerback spent 14 seasons as an NFL player and 30 as an assistant coach. People who see him every day say there's a weary sadness to LeBeau now. The stress also is evident in the players, who mercifully get this weekend off.

"Thank God it's a bye week," linebacker Takeo Spikes told reporters last week. "It's bad. You can't sugarcoat it. You start to feel like you're a piece of meat in the ocean and the damn shark is taking his turn pulling you apart. Now at least the bleeding will stop for a week."

Things have gotten so bad that Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune has called for the county to renegotiate the stadium lease, arguing the Bengals are in breach of contract for failing to field a competitive team.

So the Hamilton County commissioner feels cheated? Get in line. On Monday, in the wake of a 34-7 loss to Pittsburgh, Spikes said every member of the organization "from the top down to the waterboy" shoulders the blame for the losing tradition. A day later, in a contractually obligated interview with the team's Web site, Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon said he will study his options before next season, hinting he might retire or demand a trade.

"They better get it right, or at the end of the season I've got a surprise for them," he told a team employee. "You'll see, because I'm just going to leave it like that. Mark it. Print it. Photo it.... I'm sick of this ... period."

Dillon, in the second year of a five-year, $26.1-million deal, would have to pay back $6.3 million of his $10.5-million signing bonus were he to retire, and the Bengals would be losing the only Pro Bowl player they've had in two seasons.

That's not to say the Bengals don't have good players. They have average talent and have done relatively well shopping the free-agent market, considering many NFL players simply refuse to play for Cincinnati and some even have clauses in their contracts barring a trade to the Bengals.

The Bengals would have loved to have Drew Bledsoe, for instance, but he had no interest in leaving New England for a franchise that has gone through 12 starting quarterbacks in 12 seasons.

Former Bengal cornerback Solomon Wilcots, who still lives in Cincinnati and has covered the team as a local TV reporter, then for ESPN and now CBS, said that instability at quarterback is a major reason the club hasn't been to the playoffs since 1990. Wilcots has committed this grim statistic to memory: In the last 2 1/2 seasons, Bengal quarterbacks are responsible for 20 touchdown passes and 53 interceptions.

"You need hope," he said. "When you look at that guy under center and you know he doesn't have it, you're not going to win."

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