CINCINNATI -- The hottest spot in Cincinnati these days is the parking space next to the one belonging to Bengals president and general manager Mike Brown.
That's where former head coach Dave Shula parked until Brown fired him Oct. 21 in the wake of a 1-6 start. At the moment, the space belongs to Brown's daughter, Bengals corporate secretary Katie Blackburn.
Up until last Sunday's 30-27 loss in Jacksonville, it was a pretty safe bet that Shula's successor, Bruce Coslet, would get the spot for the next few years. But even though the Bengals are 4-2 under Coslet heading into Sunday's game here against the Ravens, he still has his old space and old contract.
"I hope he's the guy. He's got everyone's respect," said linebacker James Francis, voicing what seems to be the majority opinion.
"When he comes into the locker room and everyone is talking, the room gets quiet. That hasn't happened around here in a while. He's straightforward," Francis said.
But it's not as cut-and-dried as AstroTurf. The Bengals have to sell 50,000 seat licenses by April 30 for ground to be broken on their new stadium. The question everyone is asking is, "Can Brown keep Coslet if the Bengals finish the season less than respectable against the Ravens, the Oilers and the Colts?"
"I've enough to worry about with Vinny Testaverde," Coslet said, referring to the Ravens' quarterback.
But he also has to worry about a player who won't be on the field Sunday. Bengals middle linebacker Steve Tovar was closing in on his third straight team tackling title before tearing two ligaments in his knee Sunday.
Coslet remembers the damage Ravens running back Bam Morris did last month before the Bengals took control of the game.
The Bengals' ability to stop Morris and Testaverde in the second half led to their last-dash, 24-21 victory in Baltimore on Nov. 3. The victory had all the elements of the Coslet regime.
As almost every Baltimore school kid knows by now, the Bengals erased a 21-3 halftime deficit by holding the ball for 22 minutes in the second half.
Under Coslet, the Bengals are winning the close games they always lost. Two weeks ago, Atlanta closed a 17-0 deficit to 20-17 early in the second half before quarterback Jeff Blake finished off his 349-yard passing day with a flurry that resulted in a 41-31 win.
"This is a different team now," said center Darrick Brilz. "We're going out there thinking we can win instead of 'Let's try not to lose.' "
The Bengals have scored 100 fourth-quarter points this season, two fewer than the most they scored in the four seasons under Shula. They also came into last week's game No. 1 in the NFL in turnover differential with plus-17.
But in the loss to the Jaguars last week, the trend didn't hold. The Bengals couldn't keep a 20-19 lead in the second half and for the first time this season, the defense did not force a turnover.
Still, the Bengals are averaging 28.5 points a game since Coslet took over, and wide receiver Carl Pickens is on pace to become nTC the first Bengal in history to catch 100 passes. Brown seems satisfied.
"I think we are playing where I would have expected us to play," Brown said. "We have some problems with personnel that are still evident, but as we get later into the season they are getting a little better."
Pub Date: 12/05/96