BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals plan to re-evaluate how often and when they open the Paul Brown Stadium field to events during the season.
Both teams groused about the sandy, sloppy conditions of the grass during the Bengals' 24-13 victory over Arizona Sunday.
A summer drought, a cold autumn, construction delays, and a heavily-used surface have contributed to the problem, the club said Monday.
The Bengals will try to dampen their temporary field of Bermuda grass in an attempt to solidify the surface for the season's last home game Dec. 17 against Jacksonville.
Attempting to re-sod the middle of the field won't solve the problem, the Bengals say, because there isn't enough time for the grass to root in the cold weather.
The club plans to continue its relationship with pee wee football organizations and local high schools, but it will look into fine-tuning dates and duration of events.
For example, pee wee football was on the field for 35 hours and 31 games the weekend of Nov. 10-12, which is nearly as long as the Bengals are on the field for their 10 home games.
Since that weekend, the middle of the field has been all but destroyed. Given how late it was in the season, there was no chance to have the field recover.
The club wants to continue hosting non-Bengals events at the stadium and said a better alternative might be earlier autumn dates, when there is more time to recover during the growing season.
The Bengals hope it's better next year. Their permanent field of Kentucky bluegrass was wiped out while being grown in Baltimore during a 1999 drought.
Since bluegrass suffers stress in the summer, the Bengals didn't want to repeat what the Browns did in their new stadium last year and opted for Bermuda grass for a year. But Bermuda does well in warm, dry conditions and it wasn't that kind of fall in Cincinnati.
The club hopes the permanent bluegrass field is installed this April or May. The current field didn't get in until June because of construction delays, which also hampered growing.
NORV NOTICED? Did the offensive guru the Bengals could be seeking as their next head coach come loose when Norv Turner got fired in Washington Monday?
Bengals coach Dick LeBeau is looking good at the moment for next year, but he knows Cincinnati can't look bad in any of the final three games.
LeBeau noticed the firing, but says he's not thinking about what he has to do to stick around.
"No, I really don't," LeBeau said. "I felt good yesterday because (Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis) was the only coach in the league that I had seniority on, so I felt pretty good. Now I've got two guys. One in Washington and one in Arizona, so before long I'll be the dean of the NFL."
HEATH OUT: The Bengals lost right cornerback Rodney Heath for the season Monday when they put him on injured reserve with a moderate right shoulder separation that will take six weeks to heal.
Which means rookie Robert Bean, off his fourth-quarter benching against Arizona Sunday, starts at right cornerback next Sunday in Tennessee.
Veteran Tom Carter, who lost his job to Bean two weeks ago, is back in the lineup at left corner.
What the Heath injury means is more playing time for second-round pick Mark Roman. Roman got his most extensive time of the season Sunday, bumping nickel corner Artrell Hawkins out of the lineup until late in the game.
Heath moved inside to take Hawkins' spot in the slot while Roman worked outside. But secondary coach Ray Horton wants the 5-11, 190-pound Roman to play some in the slot as well and, "now's a good time.
"We'll have to sit down and look at that," said Horton of a nickel package without Heath. (Roman) did 50-50. I want him to do better. He wasn't outclassed. There weren't a lot of balls thrown at him. . . It's like with Bean. Bean kept taking the next step. That's what (Roman) has to do."
In Heath, the Bengals lose one of their most dependable players and tacklers. The Cincinnati prep product out of Western Hills High School who virtually walked on to this team from an indoor league provided a lot of heart at 5-10, 175 pounds.
Heath says he first injured the shoulder in Atlanta during the second pre-season game, but kept playing with it. In fact, he said he didn't think Sunday's injury, which came with about 40 seconds left in the game when he dove backward for a tipped ball, was as serious as the original problem.
Of course, Heath is the guy who returned to game after 240-pound Eddie George nearly ripped his arm off on Heath's saving tackle in the open field.
"He made a coupe of sure hits Sunday and he always does the little things," Horton said.
Heath was trying to talk people into keeping him active as he showed all the signs of a free agent who made it.
"That's the way it is when you get hurt," Heath said. Another guy comes in, fills in, you might not see it again when these guys get the opportunity to play."
BOOKER LOOKING AT SHELF:** The most frustrating season of defensive end Vaughn Booker's career could be over. Booker, who signed a five-year, $11 million deal in February to play in his hometown, is thinking he needs arthroscopic surgery on a knee that has hobbled him all season.
The Bengals think he has been productive, but Booker isn't happy with his play or the swelling and soreness that hampers him off the field as well as on the field. Booker has no sacks and has just 32 tackles, according to the coaches' film.
Booker planned to talk with a surgeon and his wife before making the call.
"Of course they want me to play, but they'll support my decision like they have all this year," Booker said of the club. "It makes me want to come back even more and be part of the team. I want to come back and play, but I can only go so far. If I had to play tomorrow, I couldn't play tomorrow."
Bengals trainer Paul Sparling said repeated magnetic resonance imaging tests (MRI) have shown no ligament or any other serious damage and that Booker needs "housekeeping," for a cyst that's been in the back of his knee since training camp.
Booker underwent a scary month-long ordeal full of medical tests when the club tried to find out why he fainted on the field going back to the huddle Sept. 17 in Jacksonville.
Booker pondered retirement, but returned when tests cleared his heart and brain and the episode was written off to a sudden reduction in blood pressure.
Booker, who turns 33 in February, says he has no plans to retire.
"I didn't sign a five-year deal to play one," Booker said. "I feel young mentally. I am getting older, but I don't think that affects my approach to the game."
MITCHELL IMPRESSING : Quarterback Scott Mitchell is rapidly winning the confidence of his teammates after raising his starting record to 1-1. Right tackle Willie Anderson noticed Mitchell kept playing after taking some shots on the blitz with the sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
"Don't think guys don't recognize that," Anderson said. "Guys see that hopping back up. He's being a competitor. Guys see that fire in his eyes. That's what you need out of that position. I thought the biggest thing he did today was firing up guys in the huddle. I like to keep them motivated, but it looks better when it comes from the quarterback out there. He does things well enough for us to score and that gives us confidence."
The Bengals are averaging 18.5 points per game in Mitchell's two starts, 11 in Akili Smith's 11.
Third down is the quarterback's down and that's where Mitchell picked up 57 of his 109 passing yards. He was 6-for-11 on third down with all the completions going for first downs.
Especially key were two ice-cold third-down throws to tight end Tony McGee and rookie receiver Peter Warrick on the last drive.
Mitchell's bootleg play-action to McGee over the middle netted 16 on third-and-6, and Mitchell hit Warrick for nine out of the shotgun on third-and-seven.
``That's indicative of what we're trying to do," said Mitchell of the last drive. "We could have
run three plays and said, `OK, defense, hold 'em.' We made a lot of key
plays, put some points on the board and sewed up the ballgame.'
``It was a big win for us. It was a good, solid game.," Mitchell said. "We talked about
finishing the season and finishing the right way, and that game was a good
indication of where we are mentally. Guys kept fighting through the whole
thing. We didn't get shellshocked when things started evening up at the end
of the game. We were able to finish it off."
Even though Mitchell finished with just 109 yards, McGee tipped his hat to him.
"Scott did a good job of delivering the ball when he had to," McGee said. "l think we only had two plays on third down where guys didn't hold on to the ball. How many yards did we pass for? Well, when you rush for 292 and you get 100 passing, that's close to 400 yards and you can't ask for anything more than that.
"Scott played well," McGee said. "The way he ran the tempo. They wore down a a little bit."
Mitchell, a free agent next season, says he's thinking of only the next game in Tennessee. But he told Fox TV this weekend what he's been telling the Cincinnati media. If the Bengals offered him a contract, he'd be delighted about the prospect of returning.
CARTER RESPONDS: Carter, the veteran corner, got two reprieves against the Cardinals.
After Arizona receiver David Boston beat Bean for a 15-yard touchdown pass with 13:45 left in the game, Carter replaced him as the Bengals tried to stop Boston's career day of nine catches for 184 yards.
On his first series, Carter picked up his 11th interference or holding penalty this season when he was called for hand checking Boston down the right sideline on a third-and-two.
It was a huge 17-yard penalty and gave Arizona the ball on the Bengals 35 with Cincinnati protecting a 21-13 lead.
"That was a marginal call," said Bengals coach Dick LeBeau. "You have to go for the ball in that situation and I thought he did."
But Carter's world changed in the next 93 seconds. Like he did in the Bengals last win on Oct. 29 in Cleveland, Carter intercepted a pass to help seal it when Arizona quarterback Jake Plummer tried to find Boston in a zone defense at the Cincinnati 7.
"Welcome to our world," said Carter of the ups and downs of an NFL cornerback. "We were just chicken fighting on the penalty and that happens all the time.
"I was in a deep-short zone on the interception, and I was just trying to read the quarterback," Carter said.
Heath said Carter did more than that: "He baited him and (Plummer) threw it right at him. He gave him one."
Plummer had a big 278-yard passing day, and Heath admitted it was tough covering receivers on the loose turf. Especially when the Bengals were playing off after building a 21-0 lead.
"It's hard to break on that stuff," Heath said. "You're trying to react and you feel like you're in sand. We just came off them because we knew they were trying to go down field and we were trying not to give up the big play."
Still, the Bengals allowed Boston three catches of at least 33 yards once the score was 21-0.
RACKERS COPES: Bengals rookie kicker Neil Rackers and his holder, punter Daniel Pope, were visibly frustrated after Sunday's victory.
Rackers had just nailed the first clinching field goal of his career, a 32-yarder with 62 seconds left that cemented the victory.
But he was still thinking about the tries he missed from 36 and 45 as he struggled with the loose Paul Brown Stadium turf.
"It's a crapshoot on this field," Rackers said. "You follow through on your principles, do what you're supposed to do, and you end up reaching for the ball, or you're too close because you're just trying to find a solid piece of ground."
But like Pope said, "No one is to blame, it's just the way it is."
"For a professional stadium and brand-new stadium, I'm very surprised," said Arizona cornerback Aeneas Williams, whose feet went out from under him after his interception. "It was like the whole ground came up. That was the first time I ever experienced something like that. . .The conditions weren't very good at all."
But there were reasons, and they played on the same field. The Bengals dealt with similar conditions in Baltimore's new stadium last year.
Arizona kicker Cary Blanchard said PBS was the worst field he'd ever worked on in nine NFL seasons after hitting the right upright from 31 yards away, and blowing an extra point.
"He was just doing what he always does and he sunk down about eight inches in the ground," Rackers said. "That's what happened out there and he kicks the ground."
Rackers pointed out that some of the finest kickers in the league have missed easy ones here this year. Detroit's Jason Hanson was 0-for-2 way back in August, and Denver's Jason Elam was 0-for-2 in October. Tennessee's Al Del Greco missed from 33 after coaxing through a 22-yarder that hit an upright.
"There isn't too much you can do with this field," Rackers said. "It seems like it's headed to a lost cause. You can stomp on the spot before the kick, but you run the chance of not stepping exactly right in the spot. When you did plant today, the front of your foot was buried and my heel was pointed up because it just sank."
All told at PBS this season, opposing kickers are 9-for-13, while Rackers is 5-for-10 for a total of 14-for-23 in Cincinnati. The average coming into the game for all NFL teams kicking field goals was 18-for-23.
One of the oddest sights of this or any other season had to be Bengals quarterback Scott Mitchell and some offensive linemen feverishly trying to do a bit of greenskeeping for the last field-goal try.
"It turned out that was our best spot all day," Pope said.
Told he should be near perfect on the bluegrass next year, Rackers said, "Check my percentage out there on the practice field. It's got to be close to 90 percent."
VERSATILE DILLON:** If you don't think Corey Dillon is a leader on this club, you better check with Rackers. Before Rackers went on the field for the clinching field goal. Dillon didn't sit on his 216 yards. He went up to Rackers and told him to forget the two earlier misses.
"I told him, 'If you make this one, everybody's going to forget the other two,'" Dillon said. " 'If you want to be the hero, you go out and make this one.' And sure enough, he did.
"But to come back from those mistakes and hit a crucial field goal, to really seal the deal is something special," Dillon said. "I've got a lot of confidence in him."
Rackers stopped by Dillon's locker for a hug and handshake and to say thanks.
"See, you're the hero," Dillon told him.