Bengals looking for a Natural

BY GEOFF HOBSON - GEORGETOWN, Ky.

Bengals President Mike Brown and quarterback Akili Smith invoked the name of Rams quarterback Trent Green. Receivers coach Steve Mooshagian turned to one of his favorite movies, "The Natural," and recalled Bump Bailey. Kicker Doug Pelfrey gathered the team in prayer after this morning's practice.

But no matter what they did today, the Bengals still had to live with these irrefutable facts. When they lost Darnay Scott for the season with a broken leg, they lost their fastest and most seasoned receiver. Now they've got 15 NFL catches among their top four wideouts and the fifth guy, James Hundon, now the senior statesman with four years in the league, caught one ball last year.

Now they have to find somebody with Scott's stretch-the-field speed so first-round playmaker Peter Warrick can weave in between.

"When Bump Bailey went down, Roy Hobbs was ready to go," Mooshagian said. "That's what we need. We need a guy to step in here, no matter whether he's played or not. I still think we're better off now than we were last year at this time."

With second-year receiver Craig Yeast (three career catches) getting the call to start Friday's preseason opener in Buffalo at Scott's flanker spot, the Bengals don't see any answers in free agency or on the waiver wire. And Brown said today they won't change their stance in the contract stalemate with running back Corey Dillon. Brown wouldn't respond to Dillon's comments on bengals.com in which the Pro Bowler said he wanted $3.5 million to play this season. But he said the club would continue to negotiate and didn't think the Scott injury made the Dillon talks more urgent.

"I don't know that it does change our situation with Corey," Brown said. "It's a different siuation. We're glad to hear Corey talking positively about next year and we hope we can get something done."

After the preseason opener, the Bengals will mull all kinds of options. Warrick played flanker all four years at Florida State and could make the move from split end (known as X) back to flanker. That means Hundon, Yeast, second-year man Damon Griffin or Warrick's college teammate, Ron Dugans, could emerge as the starter at X.

Combined NFL catches: 43. They've all got 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash or better, but there's nobody as fast as Scott when the ball is in the air. Coach Bruce Coslet is hesitant about saddling Warrick with the switch because the rookie is already learning the X spot as well as the slot in one of the three-receiver sets.

But as Dugans said, "Pete can play where ever you put him. To be honest, when Pete and I got drafted, the only thing we thought about was starting right away."

With the influx of many highly-drafted receivers this year, a veteran may get released in the last two cutdowns. But Brown isn't optimistic.

"There aren't any good starting players sitting around outside of fooball right now," Brown said. "And that's what we lost. A very good, experienced starter. They aren't out there. We'll get someone's sixth or seventh receiver, but we already have that. Our young guys are going to have to come on faster than expected."

The biggest challenge the Bengals may have is getting their young team over the shock of watching their best offensive player put his head on his helmet as he looked at his disfigured leg while waiting for an ambulance. Their most proven weapon gone for the year in an instant. A young team that has lived through the Boomer Esiason exit, the Carl Pickens saga, the Dillon soap opera. And now this.

"If it's not one thing, it's the next," Smith said. "With the new stadium and the positive attitude around here about getting things turned around and then to have our No. 1 receiver go down like that, it's almost like it wasn't true. I kept saying, "Get up Darnay, get up Darnay.' "

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Smith said the shock started to wear off in time so that it was a little bit looser for the afternoon practice. As Scott lay on the ground, he told Mooshagian to tell the other receivers not to feel sorry for him and to worry about replacing him, and they seemed to heed his words. But Smith also said there was still a buzz, the locker room wondering, "What are we going to do?" Smith wasn't kidding anybody.

"Sure, I'm concerned about the lack of experience," Smith said. "Now I have to try to get with Craig, Griff, Hundon, Dugans, Pete and remind them about coming back across the middle, or settling into the zone or making a key block."

The Bengals wonder if the 5-7, 160-pound Yeast is an every down player. He was fast enough to return two punts out of 10 returns for touchdowns last season, but he has to prove to them he's durable and that he can catch consistently. The only other speed threat is the 6-1, 173-pound Hundon, 29, best known as one of Jerry Rice's workout partners. Hundon's best year was 16 catches in 1997, but his hands have never really caught up to his speed.

"These old bones can still run," Hundon said. "It's funny. They've been thinking I was the odd man out. It's tough it happened this way, but I'm confident I can play. I know all four spots, I can run, and I know the offense well."

Yeast has been learning the flanker spot from Scott the past two years. Now he's not there. But as the SEC 's all-time leading receiver at Kentucky, Yeast had fun proving to people he wasn't too small.

"I didn't want to get my chance like this, but the chance is here and I have to take advantage," Yeast said. "People have been telling me I was too small since I could walk. This is just another chance to prove people wrong."

When the Bengals chose Warrick, some in the draft room compared three of the Bengals receivers to the Rams' Super Bowl trio. Scott was as seasoned and as good as Isaac Bruce. Warrick was as dangerous and drafted as high as Torry Holt. Yeast was about as big and fast and as young as Az Hakim.

But now the Bengals might not be able to go with three receivers as much. So the only possible comparison with St. Louis is now the Trent Green injury. When Green, their new quarterback, was knocked out for the entire season with a knee injury in a preseason game last year, the Rams literally wept and said their season was over. Until unknown quarterback Kurt Warner came out of nowhere and on to the cover of this year's NFL Fact and Record Book as Super Bowl MVP.

"I'm not saying we'll have a St. Louis experience," Brown said. "But I'm not going to throw in the towel because we lost one guy, no matter how good he is. Let's see what these young guys can do."

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