Monday night football not what Bengals envisioned

They’ve waited a dozen years for the chance to look into the camera, recite their name and alma mater, then strut their stuff for a national audience on Monday night football.

Now that the chance is here, the Bengals would rather hide in a hole.

A 1-4 start has left the NFL’s most forlorn franchise on familiar ground. Fans feel betrayed and players feel besieged heading into that long-awaited night in the national spotlight against the Denver Broncos (5-1).

“They can’t worry about what’s written about them or said about them,” said coach Marvin Lewis, who is trying to rally his downtrodden team by publicly defending it. “And right now, they’re going to be attacked — somewhat deservedly so. We’ve earned it. The only way we’re going to get out of it is to go and fix it.”

That’s the problem. There’s no quick fix.

The Bengals knew they’d have a tough time at the start of the season because their defense is under construction, quarterback Carson Palmer is learning and the schedule is daunting. A series of injuries forced rookies to play long before they were ready, further complicating matters.

Still, no one expected things to be this bad heading into the Bengals’ first Monday night appearance since 1992.

“In training camp, if you would have asked us to write down where we’d be at this point, I wouldn’t have said 1-4,” offensive lineman Eric Steinbach said.

It’s not just how much they’re losing; it’s how they’re losing.

Before a game against rival Cleveland last Sunday, receiver Chad Johnson sent bottles of antacid to the Browns’ four defensive backs with a handwritten warning that they’d get sick to their stomachs trying to cover him.

During warmups, Johnson repeated his prediction live on a nationally televised pregame show. Cornerback Reggie Myles joined him and gloated that the Browns would need a headache remedy as well, once the Bengals got done with them.

It was a prescription for embarrassment.

Johnson dropped three passes and Myles was part of a defense that gave up 449 yards and four touchdown passes in Cleveland’s emphatic 34-17 victory. The lasting image was a banner referring to Johnson as the “Head Bungle.”

“I don’t know what the answer is,” a disheartened Johnson said. “There is no answer.”

Even the ever-guarded Lewis acknowledged he’s running out of things to try.

The most distressing part of the 1-4 start has been the abysmal defense, which has given up more rushing yards than any other in the NFL. Despite a week of emphasis on stopping the run, the Bengals allowed William Green to run for 115 yards Sunday.

And that wasn’t all. Jeff Garcia, described as “skittish” by his head coach only a few days earlier, threw four touchdown passes, including one play that covered 99 yards. Only Cleveland’s four turnovers prevented the game from being even more lopsided.

The defense was so alarming that Lewis — who coordinated the Ravens’ Super Bowl defense in 2000 — spent a lot more time coaching the unit and calling formations in the second half, a noteworthy change in his routine.

Results? Nothing to brag about.

“When you don’t win, you try to turn over every stone you can to look at why you’re not winning,” Lewis said. “So that’s just another step. I’m trying to do everything I can to find a way to urge us on.

“It’s not what you call or when you call it, it’s about how you go about executing it. So now we’re back to square one.”

Like it or not, they’re back to the Bungles.

“We’re going to erase human nature,” Lewis said. “We’re not going to allow anybody to attack us that way. So we’re not going to worry about that. We’re not going to allow that to creep in. We’re not going to allow anybody in this building to get that feeling.”

It might be too late.