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The Cincinnati Bengals were awful last week against the Bills, just as they have been awful all summer. It figures, because they were awful last season, too. In fact they are headed for their sixth awful season of the '90s, relieved only by a couple of mediocre seasons.

It is not an accident. The Bengals operate as if they were a Mom and Pop store in competition with Microsoft and IBM.

Cincy lists just three talent scouts. The Bills have a dozen, plus general manager John Butler, who is out on the road for weeks at a time appraising talent. The Bills know what they are doing. The Bengals don't.

Take Cincinnati's safety-kick returner, Tremain Mack. He is a first-round talent the Bengals drafted in the fourth round in 1997. That should have told them something immediately. Every team knew Mack had first-round talent. Most of them also knew he was an alcoholic. Mack missed the last half of the '97 season because he was suspended for substance abuse. Last season he spent six weeks in jail. He played against Buffalo the other night, but once the season begins he starts a four-game suspension.

Cincy also is playing without wide receiver Carl Pickens, an enormous talent. Yet when Pickens came out of Tennessee, he was red-flagged by at least half the teams in the NFL because of his reputation as a problem player. Players like him are the great deceivers. They end up with spectacular statistics but they kill their teams in the dressing room.

The Bengals couldn't find a team that would give them full value for Pickens in a trade so they made him their franchise player, which means he couldn't go anywhere else. He's held out all summer and probably will when the season begins. He's useless to them.

Cincinnati has operated this way for years. The Bengals, like a few other teams, pay no attention to what a player might do to team chemistry. It's one of the most important factors in drafting a player, especially those who will command serious money.

When the Japan Bowl, the postseason college all-star game, used to be held, the Giants sent two scouts along on the players' chartered plane. One reason was that they could give aptitude tests to a captive audience. The more important reason was to assess how the players interacted with their peers. One year only two players were red-flagged on the entire jumbo jet. One was Ricky Watters, a major talent who has been a pain to his coaches and employers since he came into the NFL.

If the San Diego Chargers had sent a scout or a security man to Pullman, Wash., to check out the favorite off-campus hangout of quarterback Ryan Leaf, they might have saved themselves some heartache. Leaf should have been a hero in the place. It was the opposite. His unpaid bar tabs were tacked up on the wall for the public to see.

It might have told the Chargers something they needed to know.

Wolford was paid illegal bonus

It turns out the reason the Steelers turned themselves in to the NFL in light of the upcoming investigation of illegal salary-cap manipulations is that they paid ex-Bill Will Wolford an illegal $400,000 bonus when he agreed to make the switch from guard back to his old left tackle position last year. Wolford is retired now.

Around the camps

Aaron Gibson, the huge offensive lineman from Wisconsin whom the Detroit Lions drafted in the first round, is out for the season due to a shoulder injury. Their top rookie defensive lineman, Jared DeVries, also is headed for IR because of a foot injury.

Lawrence Phillips (remember him?), improved from his first game with the 49ers in which he averaged 2 yards a carry. In the Niners' victory over Oakland last Sunday he averaged 2.3 yards on 10 carries.

The Packers' decision to deal wide receiver Derrick Mayes to Seattle and their old coach, Mike Holmgren, had a lot to do with Mayes' very public role in the Notre Dame scandal. The female Irish booster who spent thousands of dollars, which she embezzled from her employer, entertaining the school's football players lavished a great deal of that money on Mayes when he was a Golden Domer. The Pack didn't want the distractions.

With Chris Spielman now retired, the next middle linebacker on the Cleveland depth chart is rookie Wali Ranier of Virginia, a fourth-round draft choice. He's unlikely to stay in the starting lineup. The Browns are going the same route Carolina traveled when it was an expansion team, relying almost entirely on veterans. Their only rookie starter so far is wide receiver Kevin Johnson of Syracuse.

The comeback of ex-Indy linebacker Quentin Coryatt with Dallas is being short-circuited by tendinitis in his Achilles tendon as well as hamstring trouble.

Arthritis in his knee may keep House Ballard out of Seattle's starting lineup and he's blaming the artificial turf on which he played in Buffalo during his early career.

Swift Tony Simmons, a disappointing second-round draftee a year ago, is challenging Shawn Jefferson for a starting wide receiver's job in New England.

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