Career kick start

Mike Nugent

The Doctor is In, as Bengals kicker Mike Nugent and return man Brandon Tate can attest.

In his nine seasons as the Bengals special teams coach, Darrin Simmons has made a career of rehabbing careers. With Nugent rolling at a field-goal accuracy percentage that is seven points higher than what he brought to Cincinnati two years ago, Simmons is hoping to see the same progress from the enormously talented Tate.

So far Tate, picked up off waivers last month a few days before the season started, has tantalized the Bengals more than torched the coverage. But everyone has seen enough of his jackhammer feet to know he looks close.

"I'm teaching him how to react and which way I want him to react," Simmons said after Thursday's practice. "Trust me; he wants to do everything the exact way we want to do it. At the same time he has to play free in his mind."

Simmons' clinic has its share of success stories. Start with Shayne Graham going from the waiver wire to Waikiki as the lone Bengals Pro Bowl kicker. Take a wide receiver coming off the rolls of college free agency in Quan Cosby to become the franchise's all-time leading punt returner. In between there were guys like NFL retread Marcus Wilkins and CFL refugee Kyries Hebert anchoring coverage teams that helped win AFC North titles in a defensive division hinging on field position.      

And now there is Nugent, whose mind is free of any thoughts of the reconstructive knee surgery he underwent last November. That's freeing him up to continue the first comeback he began in the spring of 2010 when the Bengals signed him after a spate of injuries had slowed an NFL career that began with the Jets dropping a second-rounder on him in 2005.

Nugent's walkoff 43-yard field goal last Sunday that gave Cincinnati a 23-20 victory over Buffalo marked his 10th straight made field goal to open the season, making him 25-for-29 as a Bengal at 86.2 percent.

That would put him slightly behind Graham's all-time club record of 86.8 and it would put him into second place on the NFL's active list of kickers with at least 100 field goals, right between Nate Kaeding's 86.5 and Robbie Gould's 86.1. 

Since Nugent came to the Bengals with a 79 percent rate after stints with the Jets, Buccaneers and Cardinals, he's only 17th on the active list at 80.6. But he's on the rise.

"Darrin's done a lot with my mechanics," Nugent said. "That's been a big help. But just the fact they signed me was a big boost for my confidence."

Simmons started tinkering with Nugent even during his tryout with the Bengals in the wake of Graham's dismal Wild Card performance in 2009. As simple, Simmons says, as driving a golf ball. Which, of course, isn't simple but it's the same concept.

"The guys that drive the ball the best are the guys that get the club face square at impact and keep it as square as they can for as long they can," Simmons said. "He's keeping better foot position with the ball. That keeps his hips and his shoulders all in better position. Square to his target. Try to keep him square longer. He hits a more natural ball. A more pure ball."

The result of the tinkering can be seen in the instant before Nugent starts his approach. He gives his torso one final sharp turn so that he's looking straight at the goal posts.

"That's what he came up with," Simmons said. "That's his cue to keep his shoulders square."

He also thinks the training camp competition Nugent had with college free agent Thomas Weber helped provide the final drive to get him past his knee rehab, forcing him "to focus on quality instead of quantity," and not tiring out his leg with a big workload.

"It's very gratifying for me to see all that hard work he put in get him back to where he was," Simmons said. "I think he's pretty close. If not, he's pretty damn close. I can't tell the difference."

Simmons is hoping to have the same impact on Tate, the third-year player that left North Carolina as the most prolific returner in NCAA history. The Bengals are trying to time up his tremendous elusiveness with his blocking and reads. They know he's better than NFL middle of the road, where he's 18th in punt returns at nine yards per and 19th in kick returns at 23.1.

What the Bengals like is that he's got a handful of punt returns in the teens (his longest is 16 yards), and they're just looking for consistency.

"The yards are still out there; we're not getting the most out of every play," Simmons said. "But there is a fine line you have to walk. I don't want to take the ball out of his hands. I don't want him to overthink plays. I want him to react. I can't stand right beside him on Sundays. He's got to see what he sees and run where he runs."

Simmons is encouraged by the decisions Tate made on punt return against the Bills. In the first three games he caught some fair catches deep, but there was none of that Sunday. Tate also made a brilliant running catch nearly off his shoelaces on a short punt that put the Bengals at midfield.

And Simmons has no plans to split the return duties to take pressure off Tate. It was a huge decision to claim him because it meant the end of Cosby's career in Cincinnati. (It will be noted that Cosby's five kick returns in Denver have gone for 26.8 per, good for 10th in the league.) But Simmons believes the big plays that Tate can bring are going to surface.

"He's here to be our returner," Simmons said. "He's got to work through it. He's got to fight through it. That's why we brought him here and it's up to me to help him get better and get him more comfortable to do that. The only way to do it is by standing out on the field and doing it."

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