BY GEOFF HOBSON
Marco Battaglia of Queens didn't flinch at the analogy from the Bronx.
"Lou Gehrig," Battaglia said Wednesday. "The Iron Man. That's what I've been doing. Playing behind The Iron Man."
Gehrig, of course is "The Iron Horse," of the New York Yankees who started every game of his career,
The Bengals' horse, tight end Tony McGee, found out he wasn't made of iron last Sunday in Tennessee when his streak of 117 straight starts snapped with his broken left ankle.
But it also gave Battaglia a break. Before this season, one of the most dominant college players in the East during the '90s had not started in 64 NFL games behind McGee. Battaglia has started six games this season when an injury to fullback Clif Groce had the Bengals open in a double tight-end formation.
But Battaglia doesn't count those.
"This is my first NFL start. That's how I feel and my stomach feels like I'm a rookie," Battaglia said. "I've run routes before and don't get me wrong, they're all main routes. But to be the man again, it's a great feeling after nearly five full years."
Of course, Battaglia doesn't like the way it happened. He and McGee are extremely close. Battaglia says McGee earned his streak because of his monstrous dedication in the weight room and predicts, "Tony will be on a treadmill in two weeks."
They've talked every day since the injury and, "he says he'll be watching Sunday," Battaglia said.
Battaglia smiled, maybe thinking of Wally Pipp. Pipp had that infamous headache and took the day off only to never get his job back from Gehrig.
"Maybe he wants to see how well I do," Battaglia said.
Before being drafted in the second round in 1996, Battaglia always seemed to do pretty well. How good do you have to be to be a consensus first-team All-American out of some place called Rutgers?
How frustrating has the NFL been for Battaglia? He caught 69 balls as a senior. With 11 catches this season, he has 55 in five seasons.
"It's been tough, but you come to work and you play hard and you do what they say," Battaglia said.
Part of the problem has been McGee doesn't get the ball much, either. Part of the reason is since Battaglia was drafted before the 1996 season, the Bengals have had six different starting quarterbacks.
On Wednesday, Battaglia was in a late film session with Scott Mitchell, the sixth.
"This whole week has been different for me," Battaglia said. "Like just being up there with Mitch. We were talking about how important it is to have continuity between quarterbacks and receivers. Really, quarterbacks and everybody. That's what we were trying to do." Battaglia had a chance to bolt to free agency a few years back, but the Bengals offered a three-year extension and he took it with McGee also staring at free agency.
Then McGee signed on for four more years at the end of last season, which kind of surprised everybody. But something is telling Battaglia he did the right thing.
"As a football player, you don't want to leave some place where you haven't done anything," he said. "That's just not a good feeling."
BUBBLING UP: At least one influential Bengal (read defensive captain Takeo Spikes) called for a practice field covered by a bubble after Wednesday's snowstorm cut the last 45 minutes out of practice.
Troy Blackburn, the club's director of business development, reiterated the club very much wants an indoor facility, which most NFL clubs have to draw players from the warm climates for workouts in March and April.
The Bengal Bubble is earmarked for the northwest corner of the stadium complex, but the Bengals have to wait on possible expansion of the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge in a rail or commuter system.
If it expands to the east, the bridge would go right through the bubble.
SNOW JOB: The mini snowstorm was a watershed for a couple of Bengals. It was the first time rookie receivers Peter Warrick (Florida) and Danny Farmer (California) saw snow in their lives.
And it was coach Dick LeBeau's
first call at trying to schedule practice around the snow. Good try. He moved practice up 75 minutes to 11:45 p.m. to beat the 1 p.m. snow forecast. But the snow came at about 11:15 and LeBeau ended up cutting practice down to about an hour.
No one wanted to say it was a wasted day. At this point in the season, it probably wasn't but it was hard to get much done on the snow-blanketed Astroturf field.
"In my mind, there's nothing wrong with that," said left tackle John Jackson of the short practice. "We went over the important stuff and the stuff we didn't go over couldn't have been that important."
LeBeau also didn't seem concerned about the awkward day : "It was good to see the formations in their natural environment."
Warrick and Farmer clearly weren't in their environments. Warrick ran into the locker room after practice, but Farmer stayed around the field to roll around and make a snow angel.
"It wasn't that good of one," Farmer said. "I didn't know what to expect. It was kind of strange, but it was fun. It was different."
THIS AND THAT: Cornerback Robert Bean (knee) remained doubtful for Sunday's game. . .Right tackle Willie Anderson (ankle) is questionable. LeBeau is confident if Anderson gets just a little better before Sunday, he'll play, "given his track record." But late Wednesday afternoon, Anderson couldn't make a call. . .Like Bengals running back Corey Dillon, Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor took Wednesday off to rest the 1,000-yard bumps. . .
By the way, Taylor said Dillon should be elected to the Pro Bowl Thursday: "Most definitely. He doesn't have a lot of carries like the guys leading the league right now. But his average per carry (4.7), that says a lot. Of course he should go to the Pro Bowl. No doubt."