Cincinnati owner and General Manager Mike Brown knows the odds are stacked against his team turning things around this season, even though he has a new coach and there are still 13 games left to play. The Bengals became the 50th team since 1970 to change coaches during the season, and only eight of those teams were able to finish the season with a winning record. Ironically, recently-resigned coach Bruce Coslet was one of the eight coaches who got their jobs during a midseason change and then posting a winning mark. Coslet took over for David Shula in 1996 and finished with a 7-2 record.
He couldn't continue his initial success, winning only 14 of the next 51 games, and never coming close to the playoffs. New coach Dick LeBeau told reporters he would retain the zone-blitzing style of defense he brought to Cincinnati in 1997, and that offensive coordinator Ken Anderson would take over the offensive play-calling duties, which Coslet had done.
LeBeau didn't make any promises, but did explain his expectations. "I think, as much as anything, that our performance has to become competitive," the 63-year old first-time head coach said. "We think we have quality young players here. I expect our players to play hard and spirited."
All eyes will be on Anderson in the coming weeks. Most observers expect the former Bengals quarterback will be a strong candidate to take the head job after the season, and if he's to do that he'll have to do better than what the Cincinnati offense has done to date this season. That shouldn't be difficult, considering the Bengals have scored no points in their last 34 consecutive possessions, and in 37 offensive possessions to date this season they have just one touchdown to show for their efforts.
It's been since the 1945 edition of the Chicago Cardinals that a team has displayed such ineptitude over the first three games of a season, but Anderson does have some history on his side. He called the plays for the final five games of 1997, in which the Bengals averaged 32 points and went 4-1.
"I've got to come in and see what he's devising, as far as the offense is concerned," quarterback Akili Smith said. "I have no idea. I'm behind Kenny all the way."
There's another change that would seem to be in order. The Bengals are 43-104 since Brown took over as general manager from his Hall of Fame father in August of 1991. Along the way, they've missed the playoffs 10 consecutive seasons and posted the worst decade by a team in professional football history. It was Brown who bypassed the chance to grab a windfall of draft picks from the Saints in April of 1999, instead insisting on selecting Smith. Had Brown taken the trade, he might find himself in a position similar to that of the Redskins, who made the deal and have a host of young and talented players to work with.
"I have no plans to make that change right now as I stand here," Brown said when asked about stepping down as GM.
Up Next: Miami, 3-1
The Steelers have lost their last two games by the same score, 23-20. Pittsburgh's inability to win close games goes deeper than the score, however, as the Steelers have lost six of their last seven games by three points or less.
"You have to experience winning close games in order to win close games," linebacker LeVon Kirkland said.
The Steelers, in fact, were one of the best teams in the clutch as recently as 1997, when they won three games in overtime and won two others by a field goal or less in regulation. "I knew if we got into overtime that season we were going to win," Kirkland remembered.
They believe they've played well enough to win the last two Sundays, against Cleveland and Tennessee. They intercepted Titans quarterback Neil O'Donnell three times, held running back Eddie George to just 73 yards and played well against one of the league's best defenses. "You look at it and say it, but when you go and look at the newspapers, it says 0-3, so it brings you back to reality," running back Jerome Bettis offered.
Pittsburgh, which has lost 10 of its last 11 games, finds itself on the road in Jacksonville this Sunday, and then in New York to face the currently undefeated Jets.
Quarterback Kent Graham told reporters he expects to start in Jacksonville on Sunday, despite a laundry list of injuries that include a bruised hip, ribs and left hand. Graham is just one of several players who are banged up. Bettis has bruised ribs and rookie right tackle Marvel Smith sprained the MCL in his left knee. The loss of those three would be a significant blow to an offense that had at least shown signs of life the last two Sundays.
The Steelers' cause would be aided considerably if one of their first-round wide receivers would come up with a big day. The Steelers have had just one 100-yard game by a receiver in their last 19 outings.
Up next: Jacksonville, 2-2
The Titans left Pittsburgh with a long list of injuries. Among the more notable hurts belonged to defensive tackle Joe Salave'a, who left the stadium in an ambulance after injuring his neck; tight end Frank Wychek, who had a concussion; wide receiver Yancy Thigpen,who aggravated a hamstring injury; and defensive end Jevon Kearse, who suffered a quadriceps pull and a hip-pointer bruise.
Coach Jeff Fisher said on Monday that all are likely to play against the Giants on Sunday, except for Thigpen. The status of injured quarterback Steve McNair remains the same for the New York game, despite his late-game heroics in Pittsburgh. McNair is still suffering the effects of a severely bruised sternum from the Kansas City game in week two.
"I still have a little soreness in my chest," he explained, "but it's something I can work with and hopefully I can get better during the course of the week."
There's something else Fisher hopes he can work with this week; his team's turnover ratio. The Titans rolled all the way to the Super Bowl last season, thanks in large part to an aggressive defense that took the ball away from opponents 40 times, for a plus-18 differential.
"I'm concerned right now about our giveaway/takeaway ratio," the coach said. "We're minus-six, minus-five the last two games and we're 2-0. That's highly unlikely. The positive is that we're winning games. The negative is we're living on the edge. We have to get that cleaned up."
Fisher would also like to see Kearse become more of a factor than he's been recently. Kearse went without a sack in Pittsburgh, breaking a string of 13 consecutive games with at least half a sack. Opponents have been hitting Kearse with all types of blocking schemes, forcing him to run all over the field. He's looked tired in the fourth quarter the last two weeks and that could have a negative impact as the season rolls along.
"Jim Washburn has been working very, very hard with Jevon from the standpoint of how to deal with the chip block and how to deal with double teams," Fisher explained. "He made some plays and got some pressure."
Up next: New York Giants, 3-1
The Ravens defense, which gave up 55 points to Jacksonville and Miami, pitched its second shutout in four weeks last Sunday. Most impressive was the manner in which the Ravens controlled the game in beating the Bengals. The Ravens set team records by holding the Bengals to only four rushing yards, 90 passing yards, 94 total yards and only seven first downs.
Baltimore's rushing attack had something to do with the success of the defense. In his debut as the Ravens feature running back, rookie Jamal Lewis carried the ball 25 times for 116 yards and a touchdown. It helped the offense gain a 17-minute advantage in time of possession, and powered the Ravens to 11 third-down conversions in their first 13 attempts Sunday.
Left guard Edwin Mulitalo says it's so much more than that. "You've got to understand what happens when you run the ball," he said. "It just shows dominance. It wears down the defense. We get more confident and everything works the way you want."
Coach Brian Billick was heartened by both the running game and his defense in the aftermath of the 37-0 win, but he continues to look at quarterback Tony Banks and sees a transformation in progress.
"When I tell a quarterback, 'We're only going to be so good as long as this is my offense, but we're going to be really good when this becomes your offense,' they like to hear that," he said. "What I mean is, when your fingerprints start showing up on this offense, when your strengths start showing up and the game plan and the players are responding to your strengths, that's when it becomes your offense. We're beginning to show signs of that."
Banks is 9-5 in his 14 starts as the Ravens quarterback, and has thrown 25 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions, a stunning reversal of his first three seasons with the St. Louis Rams.
Up next: at Cleveland, 2-2
The Browns boasted a winning record for the first time last week, and they thought they might come home with another win after driving 77 yards for a touchdown on their opening possession. As it turned out, it was their only touchdown against the Raiders.
Second-year quarterback Tim Couch must shoulder much of the blame for the offensive meltdown in Oakland. The Browns trailed the Raiders by a touchdown late in the second quarter when Couch threw a pair of interceptions 35 seconds apart, which led to two quick touchdowns and a 28-7 halftime lead for Oakland.
For Couch, it was a painful step backwards. He went to the west coast as the NFL's second-rated passer, but after the two picks he posted a 51.1 rating for the game. Cleveland General Manager Dwight Clark displayed confidence in his young signal caller, despite what many Browns players term a heartbreaking loss.
"Tim Couch can lead us to a Super Bowl and win a Super Bowl," he offered. "I ask myself what Tim can do if we get the right talent around him, and I believe he can one day win a Super Bowl. I look at how he played in that Pittsburgh game, and he was like a 10-year veteran with the decisions he made."
Up next: Baltimore, 3-1