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3 CINCINNATI Bengals
Michael Silver
September 01, 1997
They were whipped and wounded, the weak link of the team, a bunch of large, grumpy men who had struggled early in the 1996 season. Then the Bengals offensive linemen made a stand.
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September 01, 1997

3 Cincinnati Bengals

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1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 8-8 (third in AFC Central)

Rushing

Passing

Total

OFFENSE

112.1(13)

214.5(12)

326.6(10)

DEFENSE

102.7(12)

239.1(29)

341.8(25)

They were whipped and wounded, the weak link of the team, a bunch of large, grumpy men who had struggled early in the 1996 season. Then the Bengals offensive linemen made a stand.

Unable to handle their opponents on Sundays, the Cincinnati blockers challenged their teammates on the defensive line to another kind of combat. The game was paintball, and the trash talk preceding it was positively warlike. Finally, on a warm, late-September afternoon, about a dozen of the Bengals' largest players ventured into the woods near the team's practice facility and fired paint cartridges at one another. "There were two games, and we kicked their butts both times," center Darrick Brilz recalls.

It wasn't much longer before the offensive linemen started cranking it up on the football field as well. Still, for all the optimism generated by the team's 7-2 finish after Bruce Coslet replaced Dave Shula as coach in October, the line is again feeling the heat. "We're only going to go as far as our offensive line takes us," says veteran quarterback Boomer Esiason, who returns for his second stint with the Bengals and will serve as Jeff Blake's backup. "If the line has a good year, we should get to the playoffs. If the line has a great year, we've got a shot at the whole thing."

Coslet and line coach Paul Alexander hope the lumps that the linemen absorbed last year will pay off in '97. The first two months of the '96 season were murder; injuries to two starters forced the Bengals to begin the '96 season with a unit consisting of right tackle Joe Walter, a 12-year veteran, and four players with a combined two games of NFL experience. Blake scrambled constantly and spent more time on his rear than a TV critic. The running game wasn't working, and Cincinnati started 1-6.

Then Coslet took over, and everything clicked. Rookie Willie Anderson, the 10th pick in the draft, became the starting left tackle and flourished as a run blocker. Guards Rich Braham and Ken Blackman, a third-round pick in '96, teamed with Brilz to form a tough interior. The Bengals averaged 27.1 points in the final nine games and a league-best 372.8 yards over the second half of the season. And though Cincinnati surrendered 47 sacks in '96, only seven came in the final five games.

Alexander says the turning point came in a Nov. 3 game at Baltimore. The Bengals trailed 21-3 at halftime but fought back to win 24-21. In the third quarter guard Scott Brumfield suffered a spinal-cord injury that left his legs temporarily paralyzed. Brumfield, who until January needed crutches to walk, has made a remarkable recovery and will be a backup this season. "For whatever reason, him getting hurt lifted our team," Alexander says. "The players had to decide, Do I really want to play or not? Once they decided, everything kicked in."

Not everything is hunky-dory, however. In the off-season, Coslet switched Anderson to right tackle because he was counting on sixth-year veteran Kevin Sargent, who missed all of last season with a herniated disk, to reclaim the left tackle spot he held in '95. But Sargent's recovery has been slow and his career is in jeopardy, leaving Coslet with two options at left tackle. In a worst-case scenario, Anderson would have moved back to the left side and the 34-year-old Walter would have been reinserted into the starting lineup. Instead, Coslet went with Rod Jones, a third-round pick in '96.

The running game remains a concern because Garrison Hearst, last year's leading rusher, signed as a free agent with the 49ers, and the Bengals still aren't sure whether halfback Ki-Jana Carter, the No. 1 pick in the '95 draft, will ever fully recover from the serious knee injury he suffered in his rookie year. Carter had 91 carries for only 264 yards last fall. "He looks so much better this year than he did last year," Brilz says. "It's like night and day. There's no question in my mind he's going to step it up."

If not, there's always paintball.

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