New coach David Shula strives to put a tiger in Bengals' tank Sees new attitude as key to turnaround

September 06, 1992|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

CINCINNATI -- In 1988, with the Cincinnati Bengals in need of a turnaround, coach Sam Wyche opted for the cosmetic approach.

The season after the Bengals went 4-11, Wyche turned around the chairs in the team's meeting room to face a different direction.

In 1992, with the Bengals in need of another turnaround, coach Dave Shula has shaken up everything except the meeting room.

Since last December when he was named coach, Shula has turned over the roster by almost 50 percent. In the off-season, he directed an exhausting series of minicamps that drastically altered the Bengals' work ethic for the better. He scrapped the defense and streamlined the offense.

Under Shula, punctuality has become a habit for the Bengals, and attention to detail has become a philosophy.

The Bengals he takes into today's season opener against the Seattle Seahawks at the Kingdome will be younger, faster, better conditioned and more disciplined than the 3-13 Bengals of a year ago.

Last year's team ranked last in the NFL in total defense and passing defense, and last in coverage of kickoffs and punts. It was the third-most penalized team in the league and ranked 24th in turnover ratio.

Shula, who was born in Baltimore and was a punt returner on the 1983 Colts, has yet to prove himself in a game that counts. But the son of legendary Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula received high marks for the Bengals' 2-2 preseason.

"He's done a fine job," said quarterback Boomer Esiason, a nine-year veteran from Maryland. "He's done everything he felt necessary to turn it around. There is talent here. But when you lose, you have to do something to turn it around."

Wyche left the Bengals last December in a cloud of controversy. He either was fired (he said) or resigned (they said). But when it comes to turnarounds, he is something of an authority. His 1988 Bengals went 12-4 and reached the Super Bowl, where they were 16 seconds away from beating the San Francisco 49ers.

Sitting in his office at Spinney Field in the heart of industrial Cincinnati last week, Shula was careful not to denigrate the memory of Wyche, who had hired him a year ago to coach the Bengals' receivers. Wyche has moved on to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But Shula admits that changing attitudes -- especially on defense -- has been a priority.

"The last two years Sam deliberately slowed down the attack offense to eat up the clock to keep the defense off the field," Shula said. "Those guys knew it. The attitude of the defense was, 'We can't hold up, they're just trying to protect us.'

"When I hired Ron Lynn [as defensive coordinator], one of the first things we said was we want to run the attack offense, but on our terms. We wanted to send a message to the defensive players that we expect them to hold up their end."

Through the preseason, Lynn's defense did that handsomely. It allowed four touchdowns in four games, and forced eight turnovers in the last two.

Shula, at 33 the third-youngest head coach in NFL history behind Harland Svare of the Los Angeles Rams and Johnny Michelosen of the Pittsburgh Steelers, has scored victories on two other fronts as well:

* He has smoothed over any awkwardness with his coaching staff that may have been caused by his age.

"I don't feel uncomfortable at all when he says, 'No, Jim, this is how we want to do it,' " said offensive line coach Jim McNally, 48, one of four holdovers from Wyche's staff. "He seems to knows how to handle his assistants, even though the majority of us are 15 years older than him."

* He calmed a budding controversy with Esiason after taking quarterback David Klingler with the Bengals' first pick in the draft. Esiason, wanting a pass rusher for the defense, criticized the move. "That was before I had a chance to see the [new] defensive scheme," Esiason said last week.

Shula called Esiason moments after the pick to talk things out. They've maintained a solid relationship since then.

"I think he sat back and made some judgments himself as to how I'm running the team," said Shula. "And I think he likes what he sees."

The Young Ones

D8

The five youngest current head coaches in the NFL:

Coach.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .Team.. .. .. .. .. .. ..Age

David Shula.. .. .. .. ..Cincinnati.. .. .. .. .. ..33

Bill Cowher.. .. .. .. .Pittsburgh.. .. .. .. .. ...35

Bill Belichick.. .. .. ..Cleveland.. .. .. .. .. ...40

Dennis Green.. .. .. .. .Minnesota.. .. ... .. .. ..43

Mike Holmgren.. .. .. .. Green Bay.. .. .. .. .. ...44

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