9-1-03, 4:20 p.m.
Updated: 9-1-03, 10:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals have done again what they don't usually do.
The team that has had just four kickers in the past 22 Opening Days, turned to their fifth in 23 just six days before the 2003 regular season starts against the Broncos when they suddenly cut Neil Rackers Monday. They replaced him with former Panther Shayne Graham after he made 13 of 18 field goals last season working under Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons last year in Carolina, where Simmons was the assistant special teams coach.
Rackers, who usurped Doug Pelfrey for the 2000 opener, was coming off his best season in 2002 after hitting 15 of 18 field-goal tries. He appeared to do well this preseason, making three of five despite holding problems that botched four field-goal tries and an extra-point attempt. He also drilled five kickoffs into the end zone in the four games, all but one for touchbacks.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis wasn't available Monday to give the club's reasons for the move, but he hasn't been worried about turning over new ground. Rackers becomes the 24th player on last year's Opening Day roster and injured reserve list not to be here for the Broncos and the 18th cut since Lewis arrived.
Jim Breech, the Bengals' all-time scorer who who worked every Opening Day for the Bengals but one from 1981 until he passed the torch to Pelfrey in 1993, knows the uncertainty of a NFL kicker's lot.
(If you said the fourth Opening Day kicker since 1981 joining Breech, Pelfrey and Rackers was Jim Gallery in 1989, you get a stripe for your helmet.)
Breech said he was surprised to hear of the Rackers move and admits Graham arrives in the toughest of circumstances for a NFL kicker. Although he thinks the Bengals may face some instability so close to the season, he sees factors aiding Graham.
"It's going to help him that he has a familiar face here in Darrin Simmons," Breech said. "Plus, he's been kicking right along this season, so that shouldn't be a problem getting used to the holder and snapper. But, sure, it's tough coming to a new team so close to the season. It will be different for the team, too, but he's going to get support from these guys."
Some Carolina observers thought Graham, 25, beat out Kasay for the job this preseason after he went 2-for-4 and drove a couple of kickoffs into the end zone. Graham didn't kick off least season, leaving it to Panthers Pro Bowl punter Todd Sauerbrun, but Panthers coach Jon Fox was suitably impressed enough that he told the media over the weekend that the Graham-Kasay competition was virtually a tie and that Kasay, 33, the last of the original Panthers from 1995, got the nod only because of experience.
Kasay is no doubt as popular in Charlotte as Breech was in Cincinnati when Pelfrey beat him out in '93, and as popular as Pelfrey when Rackers beat him out in 2000. When Rackers missed more than half of his first 39 field-goal tries, the fans didn't let him forget he had replaced a popular community figure that also happened to be the team's most accurate kicker in history.
Breech never had to adapt to a team so close to Opening Day. He thinks joining the Bengals with four games left in the 1980 season helped pave the way for his 115 points the next year in helping them to their first Super Bowl.
Breech doesn't think anything like this has happened so close to the opener since 1980. Sandy Vitiello had the Bengals' job the week heading into the opener and had just rented his apartment when he got word from new head coach Forrest Gregg that he was gone in favor of Ian Sunter. Sunter missed all but one of his five tries from between 40 and 49 yards, and then Vitiello was brought back for one game and had one blocked and missed another to set the stage for Breech.
The most awkward arrival for Breech turned out to be his one-game stint with the Raiders on the last day of the 1978 season. He spent the week practicing with them, but didn't play in the game because they still had Errol Mann.
"That made it awkward because the kicker was still there and it was such a veteran team, and that made it pretty tough," Breech said. "But they had a great holder in David Humm and a great snapper in Dave Dalby and that made it easier on me during the week."
Breech has noticed the recent holding woes of punter Nick Harris, but he thinks it's a minor glitch that is going to be repaired for the opener. He also thinks the rhythm of Harris and snapper Brad St. Louis is going to smooth Graham's transition.
"They practice it so much with Darrin, I just see them getting it ironed out," Breech said. "The hard part is adjusting to a guy who hasn't held and isn't used to it. But Nick has done such a good job in the past and Brad St. Louis' snaps are always so consistent that I just think they're going to turn it around. There'll be a period of adjustment, but I think they can be ready for Sunday."
Graham impressed the Panthers with the way he handled adversity last season. They signed him the Saturday they went to Green Bay and his first field-goal try the next day came with 16 seconds left and the Panthers needing his 24-yarder to send it to overtime. He went wide right and the Packers won, 17-14, but he bounced back to hit 13 of his next 17 and booted the Saints out of the playoffs with a career-high 50-yarder in the season finale.
He had a 22-yarder tipped during the season, but he was also two of two from 50, and made six of eight between 40 and 49 yards.
He hit 6-for-8 for the Bills in 2001 after failing to hook on with New Orleans as an undrafted free agent rookie in 2000 and in the 2001 preseason with Seattle.