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Battaglia: 'I can't have a bad day'

7-22-01, 3:00 p.m.


Welcome to Second Chance Café here at Georgetown College, where the Bengals are hosting a revival for retreads.

It starts, of course, with the quarterbacks. The early plan is for Akili Smith, Jon Kitna and Scott Mitchell, all deposed starters, to each start a pre-season game in an effort to find a No. 1.

Cornerback Artrell Hawkins, another former starter, is back at the top of the depth chart. After the Dolphins thanked him for the memories because they didn't think he had much left, Richmond Webb is the left tackle.

And then there is tight end Marco Battaglia, 28, heading into his sixth season and feeling as new as his infant daughter.

"I feel like a rookie again with this offense," Battaglia said Sunday after rain washed out the club's morning skills session. "My talents fit right into it. I feel like I can do the things that the coaches are asking (me) to do. It just weighs on you a lot better."

Battaglia was supposed to be a pass-catching demon and a little light as a blocker when the Bengals took him in the second round after he caught 69 balls in a senior year he put that football factory known as Rutgers on the NFL map.

But he has only 57 catches in the five years since as the second tight end and primarily a blocker behind Tony McGee.

And while some of it may have been Battaglia's fault by not cashing his chances when the coaches did try to get him the ball, some of the problem was the scheme, too.

McGee, for one, is lobbying for Battaglia to make the team because

he thinks this offense allows Battaglia to get down field and use his elusiveness after the catch.

Battaglia making the team is a big if right now. But he's held in high regard by offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and is going to be a tough cut for a new offense in which the tight end is suddenly the first or second read on several routes.

If the Bengals keep three tight ends (McGee, third-round pick Sean Brewer, long-snapper Brad St. Louis), he's gone. If they keep four, he's here.

"I'm the fourth guy," Battaglia said, "in or out."

Which impacts either running back or wide

receivers when it comes to cutting the roster. A key question seems to be who is better: Clif Groce as the second fullback behind Lorenzo Neal, or Battaglia as one of the tight ends?

"Four tight ends means keeping five receivers instead of six, or maybe four running backs instead of five," said Jim Lippincott, director of pro/college scouting. "But the four tight ends mean you could keep one fullback and use tight ends back there at times."

Which is exactly where Bratkowski would like to put Battaglia occasionally, as well as splitting him out.

The knock on Battaglia in some quarters here has been his struggles as a blocker at the point of attack in the running game, although Battaglia notes Corey Dillon went to two Pro Bowls doing a lot of running with him and McGee blocking in two tight-end sets.

"He's a unique tight end because he's a good route runner and has good hands and speed," Bratkowski said. "He might not be a No. 1 guy because of blocking and size, yet guys like him play a long time in this league. We like to run the ball with two tight ends, so just think of all the neat things you can do with two tight ends in the passing game."

McGee can only wonder in this offense that puts the tight end in position. Which begs the chicken-and-egg question of the Bengals' previous scheme.

Were the tight ends open and one of the reasons the quarterbacks have struggled is because they couldn't find them? Or couldn't the tight ends get open?

"This is a good offense for a tight end," McGee said. "The two tight ends should get at least 30 balls each. A lot of times we're the first or second read and that's never happened here. I'd like to see Marco in this offense. It's made for him really, and it gives him chances he didn't have before."

Much will depend on the development of Brewer. It helps Battaglia that Brewer couldn't attend most of the May voluntary camps because his class at San Jose St. graduated late. Brewer is going to make it, most likely, but if he's slow to progress the club would need the veteran Battaglia more than ever.

"But I don't know if you can say (it hinges on Brewer's development)," Bratkowski said. "It's a total picture and we'll know by the time it all shakes out.

Even though he's a big-time Yankees fan from Queens, Battaglia loves being the underdog. It probably goes back to the Rutgers thing and lining up behind McGee all these years.

Maybe blocking isn't going to be all that big with him anyway. The Bengals, looking for that speed down field, asked him to lose 10 pounds. He showed up at 243 with a lot more than 10 pounds off his mind.

"I haven't touched things I want to touch here in five years," Battaglia said. But just because I'm a fit with a system doesn't mean a thing. You have to do it on the field."

He figures he doesn't have a lot of room out there.

"I can't," Battaglia said, "have a bad day."

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