Cincy still suffers from identity crisis

Standing before his locker following Cincinnati's 10th defeat in 16 games, the Bengals' longest-tenured player sounded like a guy forced to watch the same sorry movie, day after day, year after year.

Right tackle Willie Anderson hopes the ending will be different this time, but with unbeaten New England coming to Paul Brown Stadium on Monday night, the painful truth came into sharper focus.

"They've been a great team for so long," Anderson said. "We're still struggling years and years into this whole thing, trying to figure out what kind of football team we're going to be, what kind of games we can win at the end."

Anderson was speaking a mere 30 minutes following Cincinnati's 24-21 defeat in Seattle last Sunday. The things he said about the Patriots revealed plenty about the Bengals, too.

"They are a well-coached, disciplined team and they're not a bunch of misfits out there," Anderson said. "They are going (out there) as a professional group of guys and that's going to be a big challenge for us, being able to challenge that group of guys professionally. They are a class-act team. They know how to play football and how to win games."

Anderson is the Bengals' elder statesman, better qualified than any other player to sense where this team is headed. His comments, delivered with a calm suggesting some calculation, were not the emotional ramblings of a volatile young player following an emotional defeat.

The Bengals have 13 games remaining in what could be a pivotal season under fifth-year head coach Marvin Lewis. They haven't won a playoff game since January 1991. They are 1-2 this season and make mistakes similar to the ones that prevented past Bengals teams from taking the next step.

The off-field issues that have defined the Bengals seem to be under better control. Lewis and the organization, under pressure from the league, are taking a harder line against such things. You just wonder how quickly the damage can be undone. The next few weeks will be critical in Lewis' attempt to salvage an effort that seemed so promising when the Bengals won 11 games two seasons ago.

Even the strongest coaches need leadership in the locker room, and that is where the Bengals might need time to draft and develop more players with the right qualities. Their current leaders aren't particularly vocal, but neither has the organization always had their backs.

Players attempting to set high standards need to know an organization is doing everything possible to empower them. Championship-caliber leadership has a harder time emerging when a team drafts players who have displayed questionable character, as the Bengals have done.

It's tough to suddenly instill discipline and accountability four years into a rebuilding project.

That might explain how a 12th-year pro such as Anderson could sound so philosophical only three weeks into a season, and why he has no feel for whether the Bengals will turn things around.

"Whatever year this is for us, we still trying to figure that out," Anderson said. "It's like year to year. This year, we are this kind of team. Next year, we are a different kind of team."

Anderson wanted to say more.

"It's frustrating, man, it's frustrating," he said. "Guys want to vent out more, but you gotta keep saying the coaches' clich├ęs: 'We'll get better as a team. We'll figure it out as a team.' "

Lewis opened his news conference Monday by talking about the need for more disciplined play. He talked about how players needed a fuller grasp of their specific roles. He said he also sensed the Bengals were "pressing" as they tried to do too much.

These are the problems of a fragile team.

The Bengals have cleaned up the off-field stuff so far this season, but one serious incident could wreck everything.

They were talented enough to hold off a rugged Baltimore team in the season opener, but flighty enough to give up 51 points to Cleveland the next week.

They racked up more than 400 yards of total offense in Seattle on Sunday, but gave away a chance at victory by fumbling a kickoff return with a minute remaining in a three-point game.

The Bengals have finished with 8-8 records three times under Lewis. They topped .500 once, going 11-5 in 2005, and they started 3-0 last season. But they are 6-10 during the past calendar year, starting with a 38-13 home loss to New England in Week 4 a season ago.

The Bengals can be pretty sure which Patriots team will show up Monday night. They can be less certain about themselves.

"We have to figure out something," Anderson said. "The coaches have to figure out something, to put the right guys on the field, to put us in the right positions. ... It's everybody. Players, coaches. We've all got jobs to figure out and the job is getting tough right now."

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.