9-2-01, 10:00 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals' beleaguered special teams took the brunt of some semi-surprising cuts on Cutdown Sunday.
Sent packing were the franchise's all-time kick returner in Tremain Mack and the incumbent punter in Daniel Pope to headline moves that included shelving rookie tight end Sean Brewer for the season on injured reserve.
Wide receiver Damon Griffin, who returned 47 punts and kicks for the Bengals the past two seasons, was placed on injured reserve for a minor injury, which means he can play for any other team but Cincinnati this season.
Quarterback Scott Mitchell's ankle injury and Sunday morning's re-signing of quarterback Scott Covington gave the 53-man roster a facelift when forced to carry the burden of four quarterbacks instead of the usual three.
The Bengals had to go light at tight end (three players), linebackers (six) and defensive backs (nine) in making Brewer and Mack casualties.
"Total surprise," said Mack, who lost the last safety spot to converted linebacker JoJuan Armour. "Quarterback is an important position. If I knew it was coming down like this, I would have liked to have run back more kicks."
Also released were Clif Groce, the Bengals' starting fullback much of the past two seasons, and defensive end Kevin Henry, a starter in Pittsburgh last season.
Veterans Malcolm Johnson, a wide receiver, Roger Roesler, a center, Corey Moore, a defensive end who played one snap since getting picked up on waivers two weeks ago, also were released, as was six-year veteran defensive end Jevon Langford.
Rookie free agents who have practice squad eligibility that got the ax were tight end Kirk McMullen, defensive tackle Jeff Boyle, and linebackers Rashad Harris and Chris Edmonds.
The Bengals can start forming their five-man practice squad after 4 p.m. Monday, when they could also make some more moves on the 53-man roster if they see anyone interesting on the waiver wire cut from another team.
Roesler and Malcolm Johnson are also practice-squad eligible.
Injuries also dictated that the Bengals keep six receivers instead of five. Despite missing the last two games with a foot bruise, rookie T.J. Houshmandzadeh joined Darnay Scott, Peter Warrick, Chad Johnson, Ron Dugans and Danny Farmer on the club.
The Oregon State tandem of Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson are two of six rookies who made the 53. The team that had one player 30 or older to start the 1999
season sat with a roster Sunday of nine thirtysomethings with defensive end John Copeland making it 10 on Sept. 20.
One of those rookies is punter Nick Harris, who came into Bengaldom just Wednesday as a Broncos' refugee off the waiver wire. With four punts Thursday night against the Colts, Harris unseated Pope, the man coming off last season's franchise-record 94 punts who seemingly retained his job last week.
"Just from reading what they said about the kid, I'm not surprised," Pope said. "They liked what he did. I wonder what it is going to do to (kicker) Neil Rackers. There are guys who aren't happy in that locker room when I told them. I hope he has a good year and the team does, too."
The Bengals, particularly their personnel department, felt Harris' star-studded college career at California is too good to pass up.
There is concern that Rackers is losing the only holder he's had in the NFL just as it looks as if he's found a comfort level in his second season.
"Harris should be fine there," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of college/pro personnel. "He held in Denver and he held all four years in college. He can do it and has done it.
"It's not what Dan didn't do, but it's what Nick could do punting the ball," Lippincott said. "He's got a bigger upside. The kid has a very big foot."
Mack, a fourth-round pick in 1997, overcame two DUI arrests and a five-month stint in jail to make the Pro Bowl after the 1999 season in which he became the first Bengal to ever lead the AFC in kick returns. He also spent a month in jail this past offseason for a probation violation.
His 3,583 career return yards is the club's best in history, but Mack couldn't withstand Armour's challenge at backup strong safety.
"I told somebody the other day that all of our safeties could start in the NFL," Mack said. "(Armour) is a good player. It helped him playing in Europe. The team stood by me in some tough times and I'll remember that."
Second-year running back Curtis Keaton looks to be Mack's replacement returning kicks. Mack is probably the one hurt most by the Mitchell injury because it forced the Bengals to go with nine defensive backs instead of nine.
Langford, 27, a fourth-round pick from 1996, made national news this past offseason with a boxing regimen to tune up for the football season. The Bengals asked him to stop fighting matches before minicamp, but not before Langford stopped his two foes in the first round of the heavyweight bouts.
Yet he couldn't punch his way out of the Bengals' most competitive position. The club opted to keep three pure tackles (Oliver Gibson, Tony Williams, Tom Barndt), a pure rush end in Reinard Wilson, and four others who can play both end and tackle in John Copeland, Vaughn Booker, Glen Steele and Bernard Whittington.
"We were trying for the right mix in what we're trying to do there," Lippincott said.