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Bengals' focus on next season


Their coach is lobbying to keep his job and his players are lobbying for him. Meanwhile, maligned owner and General Manager Mike Brown's silence on the matter is challenging his team to prove its point on the field.

"He's been good with the players internally. He's been good with the public," Brown said of interim head coach Dick LeBeau, who has repeatedly said he wants to be the Cincinnati Bengals' head coach next season. "I can't think of one thing he's done that displeases me. I wish we could win some games. That would help all of us here," Brown added.

Yeah, a couple of wins to finish the season might return LeBeau to the helm of a team with major uncertainties at major positions. Cementing those positions is what's left of the season for the Bengals.

The Bengals (3-11) will host the Jaguars this Sunday at inaugural-season Paul Brown Stadium, in a game the Jaguars (7-7) hope will put them over .500 for the first time since they defeated the Bengals on Sept. 17. The Bengals' motivation is that a win over a respected AFC Central Division foe might win Brown's offseason favor.

"I'm just trying to get better as a coach every day. I hope I'm back," said LeBeau, a southern Ohio native who would be a popular choice in Cincinnati, provided the fans believe the Bengals can do something under LeBeau they weren't able to do through the 1990's, win.

Are they close to that goal? The league rankings, in which the Bengals were first in rushing, would indicate major gains this season, but there's still the matter of a pass-offense that is last in the league, and fixing that will probably determine the Bengals' future next season.

Akili Smith, the third pick of the 1999 draft, has yet to develop into the quality quarterback for which he was projected. With the losses mounting, LeBeau installed journeyman Scott Mitchell as the team's starter, and Mitchell has mildly revived the Bengals' passing attack.

"No one knows what's going to happen here next year. No one knows what's going to happen with themselves. I signed a one-year contract and I'm not the only one in here in that situation. There's a lot of incentive for a lot of people to finish out the year and do a good job," said Mitchell, who has openly said he wants to compete for the starting position.

Corey Dillon is the Bengals' star. Dillon has rushed for over 1,300 yards, fourth-best in the league, but Dillon's future is the most major of the Bengals' uncertainties. He'll be a free agent this winter, and the Bengals are expected to place a "transition" tag on Dillon, which would allow the Bengals to keep Dillon by matching another team's contract offer.

Meanwhile, Smith had stopped speaking to the media. He hasn't criticized LeBeau or the Bengals for being benched, but he can't be pleased by the fact that he was benched as he neared a passing yards total that would've added a million dollars in incentive money to next year's Bengals salary cap. Saving that money would certainly help the Bengals re-sign Dillon.

Such is the posturing in Cincinnati. Everyone seems to be preparing for next season.

"The criticism I get is understandable," Brown said. "People are disappointed. Their patience has been over-tested. I don't fault them for criticizing me. I criticize me, too."

LeBeau is the one person in whom everyone seems to be in agreement; maybe even Brown.

"I'd put a whole lot of money down that if coach LeBeau had us from training camp that we would have won a lot more games," offensive tackle Willie Anderson said of LeBeau, who replaced Bruce Coslet for the fourth game of the season.

"I think we've got to win and I want LeBeau back, so I hope the guys rally around me and win," linebacker Takeo Spikes added. "I think there are guys who come here thinking, 'This is Cincinnati, I'm just going to chill for a couple of years and take my money.' I call it stealing. Once you don't have that respect from the players, you won't get the full out of your players. We saw it earlier this year," Spikes added.

What will we see next season?

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