Bengals having flashbacks to past dismal seasons

Published 11:22 am Tuesday, September 16, 2008

CINCINNATI — They can’t get the right number of players on the field. The offense can’t get into the end zone. The defense? Another sad story.

Around Cincinnati, it’s yesterday once more.

The bad old days have returned for a franchise that thought it had finally escaped them. A 24-7 loss to Tennessee on Sunday left the Bengals in one of those back-to-the-future moments.

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Yes, it’s that bad.

They’re 0-2 for the first time since 2003, when Marvin Lewis arrived as head coach, lost his first three games, then slowly raised the franchise out of its decade-long funk. Fans thought the franchise had turned a corner when the Bengals made the playoffs in 2005 — their only winning record since 1991 — and had an offense that ranked among the league’s best.

Three years later, the Bengals are stunningly bad. And no one saw this coming.

‘‘See what coming?’’ coach Marvin Lewis said Monday. ‘‘You can always lose. Unfortunately that’s where we are. You don’t want to lose two to begin with, but we did. And we just have to fight out of it. There is no other way around it or about it. We kind of band together and fight our way out of it.’’

One more loss and they could be down for the count.

The Bengals have scored only one touchdown on offense in their first two games. The next test comes Sunday at the Giants, who provide a small glimmer of hope. Last season, the Giants lost their first two games before going on to win the Super Bowl.

But those are the Giants. These are the Bengals.

‘‘We just need to try to find a way to stay positive,’’ quarterback Carson Palmer said after Sunday’s loss. ‘‘I think the best way to look at our situation is that we’re 0-2, we’re by no means out of the playoffs, and we’ve got a definite uphill battle ahead of us.’’

It starts with Palmer. He’s getting knocked around regularly and connecting with his Pro Bowl receivers sparingly. Palmer is the lowest-rated passer in the NFL with a 37.1 rating — yes, lower than even rookie Joe Flacco, who led the Ravens to a 17-10 win over Cincinnati in the opener.

Palmer has three interceptions and no touchdowns. He has completed only 49 percent of his throws. In two games, he has thrown for 228 yards combined. Receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Ocho Cinco have combined for 11 catches in two games.

Part of it is a function of the offensive line’s struggles. Palmer was hit often in the preseason, and got his nose broken in the third preseason game. He got hit hard again on Sunday, and slightly sprained his left ankle. Lewis said Palmer is expected to play against the Giants.

Palmer wasn’t available for comment on Monday.

Houshmandzadeh and Ocho Cinco skipped the voluntary offseason workouts, costing them a chance to keep their timing sharp. Both were injured in the preseason, throwing the passing game out of whack. Lewis said it’s still not back in rhythm.

‘‘We’ve talked a lot about those two guys,’’ Lewis said of the receivers. ‘‘They had a great week of practice last week, where they were starting to get back to where they should be. But that was like the second and third weeks of training camp. Now they should be at the point where they should play faster and better this week, making sure we’re in the right spots all the time.’’

With the offense out of sync, Palmer has started taking risks. One of his two interceptions on Sunday came on a pass forced in windy conditions.

‘‘He knew better than to make that pass,’’ Lewis said. ‘‘He has handled making the mistakes, though. We just don’t want him to press. The football team doesn’t need you to press because when you press, that’s when you make mistakes.’’

The problems don’t end there. The special teams have been erratic — Keith Bulluck blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone on Sunday — and the defense is giving up an average of 213 yards on the ground each game.

The problems are so pervasive that fans are writing them off. Attendance on Sunday was 64,540, the Bengals’ smallest home crowd since the first game of the 2003 season. Fans in the upper deck taped up a sign that played off Lewis’ ‘‘NOW’’ theme for the season.

‘‘Believe in NOW?’’ the banner read. ‘‘Show us HOW.’’

Midway through the fourth quarter, half the banner was gone, along with most of the fans.