Bengals grapple with McGee loss

12-03-01, 7:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Tony McGee and Marco Battaglia, the one-time ironmen of the Bengals as well as their top two tight ends, met for breakfast Monday morning and wondered how both their seasons could be over with five games left.

The only thing that bothers Battaglia more than Sunday's season-ending knee injury to his good friend McGee is that he believes he could have been back playing Sunday against Tampa Bay and maybe last week in Cleveland.

But Battaglia's season was done 24 hours after an emergency appendectomy Nov. 17, when the Bengals shelved him for the season on the injured reserve/non-football injury list.

"I could have played last week. I've been running around for the last two weeks," Battaglia said Monday. "It's their business decision. I guess they thought I was going to be out longer. Maybe I'm a quick healer, but I feel great. I could play at anytime."

Bengals President Mike Brown said the club still isn't sure when Battaglia would have been able to play and they didn't think they could afford to be down a tight end even for one game.

So they IR'd Battaglia and replaced him with practice squad player Kirk McMullen for the losses against the Titans and the Browns and then replaced McMullen with H-Back Nick Williams for Sunday's loss to the Buccaneers.

With McGee put on IR Monday with the most severe knee sprain (Grade 3) of the medial collateral ligament, McMullen figures to be activated again this week. But they are also looking at former Michigan State tight end Josh Keur, signed to the practice squad two weeks ago.

"We made a decision that we needed to win games to make the playoffs and Marco couldn't play in the games we felt we needed to have," Brown said. "He could be ready to

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play by next week, maybe, but with the type of surgery he had, we didn't think he would be able to come back and play NFL football by now."

The Bengals also couldn't see the injury to McGee, the second straight season he has ended on IR in December after last year's broken ankle ended his team-best streak of 117 straight starts.

"I feel badly right now for Tony," said Battaglia, whose own streak of 88 games ended. "It was the same play. A tackle in the same right flat."

No doubt they talked about their future in Cincinnati over eggs and bacon and it's as cloudy as coffee. Neither would speculate on next season, when Battaglia is a free agent and McGee, who has struggled catching some balls this season, has one year left on his deal.

"I don't see any health problems," McGee said. "If I need surgery, it will only be (arthroscopic)."

No one knows what will happen at tight end over the next five games and the coaches don't want to tip their hands since that's a position that dictates formations.

"We try to let our players do what they do best. We'll have to find out exactly what that is," said Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau Monday. "Of course, we do have a different mix. I think you'll find us burning the midnight oil here for the next couple days, but it is part of our jobs as coaches. Injuries are a part of this game. We hate it when it happens, but we have been hit in a particular position. That happens as I have said to different teams at different spots. We seem to be getting it at the tight end this year."

The Bengals like the blocking ability of McMullen and were impressed with the play Sunday of Williams in his first game as an H-Back.

"At this point, we think we've got to go with people we know and know our system," said Brown on why the Bengals are unlikely to pursue a free-agent tight end. "We're going to find out about some people."

After taking just four snaps at tight end before Sunday's second half, second-year long snapper Brad St. Louis got his first extended chance as the only pure tight end left Sunday. St. Louis, a seventh-round pick out of Southwest Missouri State, had a chance to make a big play on the first play of the fourth quarter when he got behind the linebackers on an isolation play, but he couldn't get both hands on the pass over his shoulder.

He knows the perception of a NFL long snapper: "They think he's been around 18 years, does nothing else, and just shows up Sunday." He did catch 88 passes for seven touchdowns in three All-Gateway Conference seasons for the Division I-AA Bears.

"I'm going to have to take advantage of the opportunity," said the 6-3, 247-pound St. Louis. But you know things are tough when you're No. 1 tight end is wearing No. 48. St. Louis had a shot at an 80 number last year, but, "that's the one they gave me when I walked in the door. It kind of grew on me."

The Bengals think Williams will grow into his H-Back role and he was encouraged with the way his reconstructed knee performed in his first game since May surgery on Sunday. He figures he played a little more than 20 snaps.

"I was physical. I was able to be physical, and that's a big thing," Williams said. "I just need to tune up some technique things."

On Monday, Williams replayed Tampa Bay safety John Lynch's winning strip of running back Corey Dillon in overtime and still feels badly about deciding to block a blitzing cornerback instead of Lynch. But he had to make call and the coaches applauded him for that.

"I made a decision and I went with it," Williams said. "The guy was in the box, too. One play does not really decide the outcome of a game because of all things that go on before. I did some good things and I have to get better at others."

Battaglia says he is better, but he's reduced to asking Bengals' staffers if they want to go for a run. The big topic of Monday's locker room was what do the Bengals do with none of their experienced tight ends.

Asked for his advice, Battaglia said, "I don't know? Pass the ball? Four wides?"

Quarterback Jon Kitna said the Bengals can't do a steady diet of that this late in the season. But he sensed some interesting formations in the last five games.

"I don't know what to expect," Kitna said. "I've never been in a situation like it before."

Fullback Lorenzo Neal said he could also be an H-Back if needed, as well as a tight end lined up on the line.

"Whatever they ask me to do," said the 240-pound Neal. "We're going to need guys to step up."

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