Can Warrick break out?

5-9-02, 6:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

He has caught 1,259 yards during his first two seasons in the NFL and Peter Warrick thinks it's time he takes care of 1,000 yards in one season.

This season.

He has taken one punt for a touchdown in his first two unsteady seasons as a part-time punt returner and the Bengals think it's time he can return two for touchdowns while averaging double-digits in a season.

This season.

"When I first came in, I thought I could get 1,000, but I wouldn't do it until my third season," Warrick said this week. "I'm going to try. I'm tired of going 10 for 70."

That would be 10 catches for 70 yards, which when you average just 10.4 yards per catch, happens more times than not. And maybe that is the problem. The man who averaged 17 yards per catch in four seasons at Florida State and was deemed the 2000 NFL Draft's most explosive offensive player is trying too hard.

Or, as he says, "I wanted it too bad, trying to make something happen instead of relaxing and just letting the game come to me." The fewer the big plays, the bigger the frustration. The more he lost a yard in an attempt to get 60, the more he tried to be the elusive guy and lost more ground.

"That's about the size of it," said the 5-11, 195-pound Warrick. "I'm trying to get it right. Just take it up field and go."

Warrick wants to do it so badly, he literally may be ready to stick needles in his eyes. This week's eye exam confirmed what the Bengals wondered. He could use some contact lenses and although Warrick admits he's queasy about it, he said Thursday he, "might have to do it."

After two years in which Warrick has been nicked and sliced by the stinging whispers from his buddies bemoaning his lack of big plays, the Bengals are whispering sweet everythings into his ear:

One yard after a 10-yard catch is a good play. First downs are great plays, 50-yard catch-and-run touchdowns are rare. Fair catches on punts are great plays because you're receiving a turnover. An 82-yard punt return (like his score in 2000) is rarer than a 50-yard catch. And, hey, 70 catches in the NFL last season is 70 catches. Carl Pickens is the only other receiver in club history to catch 70 and no Bengal has ever caught 121 balls in his first two seasons.

With offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski no longer burdened by teaching a new offense, he is crafting wrinkles in which to plug Warrick. He is making sure the Bengals are working on their special plays every other day during voluntary workouts this month instead of waiting until training camp.

Meanwhile, special teams coach Al Roberts is trying to relax Warrick by anointing him the No. 1 punt returner. The Bengals plan to drop back two returners this season with fellow receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh the short man and Warrick making the call as the deep man.

"We're going to get 90 punts this year and 30 are going to have Peter's name on it," Roberts said. "And out of those 30, he'll take two all the way and the rest will be 10- to 15-yard runs. And a fair catch is a great play. He has to realize he doesn't have to hit a ball over the fence every time up."

Warrick, who returned 18 punts last season, got benched for botching kicks in the 16-0 loss in Baltimore Dec. 23. And while has looked indecisive trying to choose what to catch, Roberts says he is anything but indecisive.

"He's just the opposite," Roberts said. "He s very decisive and that's the problem. He doesn't want to fair catch anything, but when he lets the ball go at the last minute, it's too late. The other return man will help him with some of that. Plus, letting him know there's a left-fielder and a right-fielder should help him. He doesn't have to cover the whole field."

Also helping him is the presence of receivers coach Steve Mooshagian, assisting Roberts with the punt return team this season.

"It's about making good decisions," Mooshagian said. "We're looking for consistency. He's got to realize things like one percent of the punts from inside the 50 have been returned in the last 11 years."

Warrick has been lobbying for double-press blocking on returns instead of single-press, but Roberts has been showing him tapes of teams such as the Redskins. Washington is a double-press team, but got their touchdown out of a single-press alignment.

"It doesn't matter," Roberts said. "Once you get past that first level, you're creating on your own on the second level. When you double press, those teams are going to make sure they don't punt long to you."

Mooshagian is also counseling that patience when Warrick is a wide receiver. Mooshagian is using the Maisonette analogy: "He wants the desert all the time, but it's only going to be on occasion. He has to spend a little more time in the kitchen."

One criticism heard in Bengaland last season is that the offense just didn't find ways to get Warrick the ball in a variety of spots, like the Steelers used quarterback Kordell Stewart and running back Amos Zereoue . But Bratkowski, who worked with both as the Steelers receivers coach two years ago, notes Warrick last played quarterback at Southeast High in Bradenton and doesn't have the throwing skills of a former major college quarterback in Stewart, and he's not as sturdy or as big as the 200-pound Zereoue running the ball.

Maybe the Steeler to look at is wide receiver Hines Ward because Bratkowski does want to get Warrick the ball more in space. Warrick wants more plays down field and would like to move out of the slot more often and play outside, but Bratkowski sees him as a slot guy.

"There are things you can do for him," said Bratkowski, when asked if he's devising a specific Warrick package. "You can put him in the backfield and run screens, but you also don't want to pound him running the ball. We had some passes called for him last year, but the situation never came up and we planned to line him up at quarterback some, but he got hurt that game."

As he installed his scheme last year, Bratkowski had to iron out wrinkles instead of put in wrinkles, which is why Warrick may get more specialty plays.

"That's where we were last year," he said. "We had trouble executing our base offense and when that happens, it's tough to do the other stuff."

Receiver Ron Dugans, Warrick's Florida State teammate who was drafted with him, thinks his friend just has to relax.

"The talk everywhere and he's trying to prove everybody wrong and he's trying too hard," Dugans said. "At times, he gets down on himself. In college when he got down, he'd say, 'I'm going to go out and score a touchdown,' and he would. The same thing will happen here and he'll say, 'I'm going to go out and make a big play,' and he will. But the times he doesn't, he gets too down on himself."

The frustration may be there. But that tear-away jersey confidence of college is still there, too.

"I just have to do what I can do," Warrick said.

What can he do?

"Everything,"

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