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

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.


COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Carter will have to lift his game--and stay healthy--if the Bengals are to contend for their first postseason berth in seven years. [Ki-Jana Carter carrying football in game against San Francisco 49ers]