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Bengals see through cloud

7-29-02, 8:30 p.m.


GEORGETOWN, Ky. _Bengals President Mike Brown again Monday denied the decade-long rumor that there is a black cloud hovering over this franchise.

Even after he watched his newly-signed speed receiver freshly-minted to make about $1.5 million this year break his left wrist Sunday in just his third practice. Except Brown never realized Michael Westbrook broke his navicular bone.

"Nobody did," Brown said. "He stayed after practice and caught balls from the quarterback and didn't realize it until later."

Westbrook rolled on the wrist after diving for a ball, but no one is really sure which play he did it on because he dove for balls all day. Whatever, it now joins the recent pantheon of Bengal pre-season disasters, such as Ickey Woods tearing his other ACL in the first 15 minutes of training camp (1991), rookie running back Ki-Jana Carter tearing his ACL on the third carry of his career (1995), promising safety Kelvin Moore suffering a career-ending neck injury and long snapper Greg Truitt blowing out his knee in the same pre-season game in Detroit (1999), and top wide receiver Darnay Scott ending his season with a broken leg in 2000.

"I think this kind of thing happens to all teams," Brown said. "It's a tough game. People get hurt. It was a fluky injury. Most of our injuries are non-contact. You can't let it get you down.. You have to move on. It's a blow, but he will be back."

Most of the other camp injuries have been devastating because they've been season-ending. Westbrook could actually be back for the regular-season opener Sept. 8 against San Diego even if he is expected to miss all the pre-season games.

"I'm not getting all traumatized about it because he's going to be back," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of football operations. "This is football. Guys get hurt. He's going to be back and play during the season."

But three practices are long enough to show the Bengals what they will miss: Westbrook's down-

field-speed and focus, two elements that have been lacking at times in a young receiving corps.

"When you have two guys like Michael and Chad (Johnson) who can run on the outside," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski over the weekend, "it puts tremendous pressure on the defense and you can do so many things."

Now the Bengals have just one speedster with Scott suiting up for the Jaguars. But they hope Johnson is enough to unleash the potential of T.J. Houshmandzadeh and others.

Bengals trainer Paul Sparling doubts Westbrook will be able to catch a ball for three weeks, but he'll be doing plenty of that as well as drills and conditioning in the four-to-six week window projected for his return.

Sparling expects Dr. Peter Stern to heal the navicular bone Tuesday morning at University Hospital by inserting a screw that pulls the broken bone together.

"It's not severely displaced so it should be a pretty simple procedure for the physicians," Sparling said of a bone that can be difficult to mend. "In fact, because of limited blood supply, frequently it doesn't heal."

But Westbrook has a good history of healing. He broke the same bone in his right wrist in 1999 with the Redskins and didn't leave a game he finished with 152 yards. He caught one ball the next week while wearing a cast and went on to finish the last seven games of his career with two 100-yard games and three touchdowns of 25 yards or longer.

(By the way, the Bengals had a wide receiver who caught one touchdown longer than 25 yards last year. Darnay Scott).

Sparling said each broken bone is different so it wasn't an automatic to repeat '99. But he is hopeful on Westbrook. He's able to say something that he couldn't say about Ickey or Ki-Jana or Darnay.

"We're glad it happened now," Sparling said. "We've got time to heal him and try get him back in time for the opener." **

FIRST CUTS: ** In order to get more snaps for other players before Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage, the Bengals released four free-agent rookies Tuesday morning in guard-tackle John Grabowski (Eastern Michigan), tight end Trent Sansbury (Furman), free safety Robert Grant (Hawaii), and quarterback Gavin Hoffman (Pennsylvania).

SWEEPS AND DIVES: Rare sight: Bengals President Mike Brown on WLW-700 AM's SportsTalk with Andy Furman and Dave Lapham to start Monday night's show here from training camp. . .

Now you can call RB Corey Dillon "Shoeless Doe." On the day "USA Today," named Dillon as the second highest-paid player in the NFL in 2001 at $15 million (just behind Denver quarterback Brian Griese), Dillon lost a screw in his shoe just before the end-of-practice sprints. So he ran barefoot and still beat the other backs handily. . .

(By the way, those numbers include the full signing bonus and not just the prorated portion that applies to the salary cap.)

DT Oliver Gibson left practice after he bruised the same shoulder on which he had arthroscopic surgery at the end of last season. RT Jamain Stephens also left after he rolled his ankle. Both are expected to work. Tuesday. . .

CB Artrell Hawkins sat out Monday as he rested his sprained PCL in his knee. He's also expected back Tuesday after he rests the soreness. CB Rodney Heath (ankle) and LOLB Steve Foley (hip flexor) sat out again. . .CB-S Mark Roman missed Monday's workout for the birth of his child. . .

Head coach Dick LeBeau took the pads off his team Monday afternoon in a bid to keep his players fresh. He's going to try and intersperse a no-pads day about every four-to-six days: "Sort of like we did at the end of the season," LeBeau said. "I thought it worked out pretty well and we had a good practice."

JACKSON OK: An angiogram at Christ Hospital Monday morning cleared backup left tackle John Jackson of any heart problems and he was expected back here at Georgetown College for meetings Monday night.

"He should be back ready to play in two weeks," said trainer Paul

Sparling. "We're going to ease him back into the conditioning end of it this week. Next week I think we'll really push him with the aerobics and be more aggressive."

Sparling said Monday's test at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati was "perfectly normal," and that the stress tests over the weekend proved to be "false positive."

A positive finding Monday would have no doubt ended Jackson's 14-year career that includes 13 playoff starts and one in the Super Bowl.

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