4-21-02, 2:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
After selecting three players Saturday they think can start at some point in 2002, the Bengals began Sunday by picking another one in three-way kicking threat and Big 10 kicking and punting champion Travis Dorsch.
The 6-6, 220-pound Dorsch said the Bengals and Jaguars were the only teams not looking at him as a punter. The Bengals plan to use him only as a field-goal kicker and kick-off guy.
But not only was the fourth-round pick a signal that kicker Neil Rackers very well may not be around this season, it was also a vote of confidence for erstwhile franchise quarterback Akili Smith.
There was discussion in the Bengals' draft room about Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner, but it was a short one. Kittner never bowled them over physically at the all-star games, they felt their biggest need at that point was kicking, and they think Smith can at least be Jon Kitna's backup and maybe more. With the Bengals not picking again until the sixth round, they most likely won't get out of the draft with a sure-fire quarterback prospect.
"I think it's accurate to say that we think Akili can come on for us," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "He's going into his fourth year and now is the time."
There were no such endorsements of Rackers and he read the tea leaves as early as last week when he recalled what incumbent kicker Doug Pelfrey told him as a rookie after Rackers got the call himself two Draft Days ago:
The drafted kicker gets the benefit of a doubt.
On Sunday, Rackers said, "I think that's a great move for him and me." When asked if that meant because Dorsch would get a chance with the Bengals and he would want a chance elsewhere, Rackers said, "I'll just leave it at that. The guy is a great kicker."
In the two years since they picked Rackers in the sixth round, he has a career field-goal percentage of 59 percent with the most crushing stat his 10 of 16 misses between 40 and 49 yards.
"It's still not over with for Neil Rackers," said special teams coach Al Roberts. "Let's compete again and work on the things we need to do. We know Neil Rackers is hard to beat out in practice."
But Roberts also said Sunday that the team needs to improve and that if Purdue's Dorsch kicks here like he did at West Lafayette, he will be the guy.
Dorsch's knocks are he is a little slow to the ball, but he did make 19 of 20 tries from inside the 50 and he made a 50-yarder this year. There is concern he missed five extra points, but the Bengals saw protection problems.
"A couple were blocks, a couple were missed, one was bad field conditions," Dorsch said. "But when you're that close, you have to suck it up and make it. There's no excuses on those. We're all looking to improve our game. If I had to pick one of the things, that would be it. Taking the same mindset in the short kicks as I do on the 50-plus yarders."
Dorsch has not heard of the horror stories about the Bengals' grass, but last year when Purdue played at the University of Cincinnati he swung by to look at "beautiful," Paul Brown Stadium. He grew up in California and Montana, kicked off long grass at Purdue, and says he can get it out of "the muck." With four years experience, he figures he's seen plenty.
"We all have failure," Dorsch said. "The sign of a true competitor and true champion is to come back from that failure. That's the thing I really take pride in. I go out and after I miss a kick or make a bad punt, I feel like I can come back and focus even more and hit a better ball. That's a huge asset. Especially at the position we play. You have to have a short memory."
Rackers' major problem has been letting his emotions get the best of him. Asked if Dorsch had a similar temperament, Roberts said, "Not even close."
Dorsch is certainly being pragmatic about his contract. After Steve Dorsch, his father, got certified by the NFL Players Association as an agent, they decided he should go ahead and do the deal.
"Originally when he went out and got certified, it wasn't initially to be my agent," Travis Dorsch said. "But it was just to be in the loop and be smart with what's going on.
"It's slotted the way things are with the collective bargaining agreement," he said. "It makes sense for my first contract to let him do it. To have him there, someone who is honest, and knows what he's doing."