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CHEAP BENGALS TO RIDE OUT COSLET CONTRACT

If Bob Cratchit materialized today, he might find work in the Cincinnati Bengals' organization. The Bengals, ever vigilant to save a buck, apparently have found a reason, flimsy as it may be, to keep Bruce Coslet as coach until his contract runs out next season.

What seems to have saved Coslet's job is that Cincinnati, after a 1-7 start, won three consecutive games before today's bye. Those victories were at the expense of three punching bags: Pittsburgh, San Francisco and expansion Cleveland (which they beat for the second time).

Paying coaches not to coach is not in the culture of Mike Brown, the Bengals' impresario. Coslet has a pact that extends through the 2000 season. He'll probably serve it out.

That spoils what might have been a good story. If the Bengals had continued to lose, making Coslet's position untenable, Brown was thinking of hiring either Sam Wyche or Gary Moeller as head coach.

Wyche coached the team for eight seasons, 1984-91, and had just three winning seasons, but he took the Bengals to the Super Bowl at the Bills' expense in 1988. That was their last whiff of success. He was fired after a 3-13 season in 1991.

Brown often consults with Wyche, who is now a TV commentator. What makes the boss so fond of Sam is that his coaching successors have produced nine consecutive losing seasons.

Had Moeller, now the linebackers coach of the Detroit Lions, been hired as head coach it would have been a case of redemption. He was the highly successful head coach at the University of Michigan when he was fired in the winter of 1995 after he had too many drinks in a Detroit-area restaurant and caused a major ruckus that the school wouldn't tolerate.

The Bengals hired Moeller as an assistant in 1995 and he stayed with them until Bobby Ross hired him for his Lions staff in '97.

Giant successes in draft

The Giants' late revival, including their victory in Buffalo last week, has a lot to do with how well they drafted in the last four years. They have 10 starters from those drafts, 11 if you include punter Brad Maynard.

Even more impressive is the luck the Giants had with their second-round picks. Every year since 1992 the next-best round produced a major player for the team. The bounty includes running back Joe Montgomery, Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Strahan, cornerback Jason Sehorn, offensive tackle Scott Gragg, wide receiver Amani Toomer, third-down back Tiki Barber, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius and cornerback Phillippi Sparks.

Drafting notes

Right now the first pick in next spring's draft is forecast to be either Florida State wide receiver Peter Warrick or Penn State defensive end Courtney Brown, pending the decision of juniors who might forego the rest of their eligibility.

Sleepers are beginning to be evaluated, too. For instance the best guard in the draft may be Leander Jordan, a 330-pounder from Indiana University of Pennslyvania, Jim Haslett's alma mater. The biggest safety in the land, 250-pound Brian Urlacher of New Mexico, is forecast to go in a high round but he'll be an outside linebacker in the pros.

Ravens may invest in Banks

Tony Banks completed just 8 of 26 passes last week in the Ravens' 31-24 victory over Pittsburgh, but he ended up with 268 yards with the help of missed Steeler tackles and has a possible future as the Baltimore starter.

The Ravens won three of their last four games and they have been scoring (they upset Tennessee, 41-14). Banks is notorious for turning over the ball, especially by fumbles, but coach Brian Billick may have no alternative for next year. The Ravens already struck out on Scott Mitchell and Stoney Case.

"We don't think what is out in the free-agent market is viable enough and it's not going to change between now and February," Billick said.

Parcells' dismal drafts

This is another graphic illustration of why coaches should not be given complete control of a football operation, especially over the college draft: Since Bill Parcells came to the Jets three years ago, he selected 16 defensive players in the draft. Just one of them, so-so tackle Jason Ferguson, is a starter.

Parker a Chief starter, tutor

Ex-Bill Glenn Parker is still starting at left tackle for Kansas City, but the Chiefs are working in their first-round draft choice, John Tait, a few series at a time. Parker, who was voted the Chiefs' most valuable player last year, has served as a willing tutor for his eventual replacement.

Parker would still be helping the Bills if he hadn't been run out of town by the talk-show hyenas.

Grass means more of Means

The Dolphins may have more trouble with the San Diego running game than they expect today. Power back Natrone Means returned to the Charger lineup last week for the first time since being injured Oct. 25. Means scored a touchdown in the upset victory at Seattle, but he carried only 14 times as coach Mike Riley tried to protect him from further injury on the Kingdome's artificial surface. He'll get a lot more work on Miami's grass field.

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