In most ways, these are the all-new Cincinnati Bengals, replete with a new stadium, two new wide receivers and a brighter outlook than the Bengals have had in over a decade. Yet, they are the same old Bengals in that they can't seem to win for losing.
The Bengals are certainly not an AFC Central Division title contender this season, but they believe they are headed in that direction for the future. This Sunday, in the Jacksonville home-opener at Alltel Stadium, the 0-1 Bengals of the future meet the 1-1 Jaguars of the present.
"I feel we have a real chance to do better," Bengals owner Mike Brown said.
Brown's and the Bengals' hopes for improvement this season hinge on a new commitment within the organization, on a young roster that is beginning to take on the look of a team that has drafted in the top 10 in seven of the last nine years, and on a second-year quarterback whose energy for the game would seem to match the strength of his arm.
"I don't want to anoint him as the 'second coming' just yet, but he's going to be pretty good," coach Bruce Coslet said of Akili Smith, the third pick of the NFL draft in 1999. "I've been around some quarterbacks in my day and he's got the mental capacity, he's got the real quick release. He's probably the most accurate passer we've had here since Kenny (Anderson). (Smith) has the determination to make himself good. A lot of guys don't have that," Coslet added.
With all of that having been said, this question about Smith remains: Will he be able to express his skills this season? He didn't express his talent in the Bengals' 24-7 loss to the Cleveland Browns this past Sunday. Smith was an anemic 15 of 43 for 250 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
It was just the fifth start of his pro career, and clearly Smith has a long way to go to realize his potential, and it won't help him that his two starting wide receivers are rookies. Smith and wide receivers Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans are the symbols of the Bengals franchise.
"He's a very sincere kid," Coslet added of his quarterback. "When you say, 'You're the guy, here it is,' some guys will hide from that and shirk that responsibility. Some guys will embrace it, and Akili is one of those guys. He says, 'Alright, give me the damn ball in the last three seconds and I'll shoot it.' "
"A lot of people around here didn't help him out today," offensive right tackle Willie Anderson said of Smith and the loss to the Browns. "We can't expect him to come in and win a ballgame by himself. If we can't get Corey Dillon a hundred yards week in and week out, or average a lot of yards per carry, then Akili won't win it by himself."
"There's no doubt he has talent. He just hasn't played enough yet to see a lot of things," Browns defensive end Keith McKenzie said of Smith, who was sacked seven times.
Dillon and linebacker Takeo Spikes are the Bengals' legitimate star-quality players. Unfortunately, the Bengals lost up-and-coming linebacker Brian Simmons to a knee injury in the Cleveland game.
The Bengals' pass-coverage is still considered to be the team's greatest weakness, and that's bad because "It's a passing league," Coslet said. "You have to have them. If you don't have corners, I don't care how good your front seven is, you're going to get toasted," Coslet said.
Artrell Hawkins is now in his third year as a starting cornerback. The other starter is eight-year veteran Tom Carter, who was claimed off waivers from the Bears late last season.
Coslet remains enthusiastic about his defense, which added defensive linemen Vaughn Booker and Tom Barndt in free agency last February.
"We've got some guys we know can play in the league, to go with the guys we already had who we know can play. There's nothing better for a quote, unquote offensive coach than a great defense," Coslet said.
The energy for the future is there, and it would seem the Bengals finally have true direction, but will they make enough gain this year to save Coslet's job?
"I understand where the pressure is. I would like to be successful. I'm confident in my capabilities as a coach. I really am. I've kind of made peace with that over the years," Coslet said.
It's a team with a future. When will the Bengals step into it?