BY GEOFF HOBSON - GEORGETOWN, Ky.
In what has become a fantasy camp for kickers, incumbent punter Brad Costello has a leg up as the Bengals' kickoff competition heads into its second round Tuesday. And he knows that helps his friend Doug Pelfrey's bid in the biggest roster battle of his career.
Costello's outing impacts Pelfrey because that means his competition with sixth-round pick Neil Rackers comes down to kicking field goals instead of kickoffs. Although Pelfrey was one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history until his woes the last few seasons, Rackers could have the edge because of his 56.7 touchback percentage at Illinois.
But the Bengals thought Rackers looked uncomfortable his first day here kicking off with new footballs during the weekend, and Costello wowed them with five kicks that pretty much floated to the goal line while hanging in the air for an impressive 4.3 seconds.
"If I kick off well, I think that helps Pelfrey considerably," Costello said. "Doug and I have been together and we want to stay together and I think we work well together. He's the one that's showed me around the last two years."
But Pelfrey knows Costello isn't picking the team. Pelfrey, the Northern Kentucky native who is one of the most popular players in club history, knows the Bengals are dissatisfied with his last two seasons even though he has been saddled with a myriad of holders and snappers on field goals.
"I don't want them to keep me because I'm good in the community," Pelfrey said. "I can do that in 30 other NFL towns. But it would be a shame if the first five and half years when I was kicking with the best is forgotten because of the last year and a half and all that was going on around me."
Rackers knows he's going against one of the good guys, but he's confident enough that he signed an incentive in which he can get an extra $21,000 if he scores at least 110 points. He admits he was out of sorts in the first kickoff competition, but thinks he has spotted the flaw.
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"It's one of those situations where you want to dislike the person you're competing with," Rackers said. "But he's the nicest guy in the world as you all know."
If Costello is clearly the guy like he is now, Rackers will have to be accurate on field goals to secure a spot. But the Bengals aren't taking anything for granted after a season in which they had one of the league's worst performances by letting foes start drives just beyond their own 30-yard line.
They claimed former Chiefs punter Dan Pope last week, the fourth punter they've signed after the draft. Pope joins Costello and Jeff Walker, a punter the Bengals nearly drafted in Rackers' spot but then picked up off waivers last month.
"It shows our lack of satisfaction with the kicking game," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel. "We have to get a guy that can either kick field goals and kick off or punt and kick off. He needs to do two jobs. Brad was hurt last year and that showed us, too, you ought to take the opportunity to at least look at as many people as you can for future reference if someone does get hurt."
With 79 players in camp, the Bengals have room to try people. But so far it's moot
as Costello continues to boom like he did back in Cincinnati, when he was hanging old balls up at the goal line for as long as 4.61 seconds. Pelfrey observed, "if he's doing 4.3 with new balls, that's got to be among the best in the league."
"They have to use new balls," said Costello of the competition. "Anyone can kick an old ball to the goal line."
Costello is a step ahead of the punters as well, where he is outkicking Walker and Pope with a hang time of at least four seconds while getting off punts averaging 57 yards. More good news for Pelfrey. Costello is the only one here who has been his holder with any consistency, but Costello needs to be more consistent, too. In last season's final four games, his best average was 36.2 yards.
"I'll say what I've been saying all along," Pelfrey said. "I want to be a Cincinnati Bengal forever. It's my hometown team. It's special. We're going into a new stadium with a chance to wash away all the negativity. We have a chance to decorate the rooms and paint the walls with championships and I see myself in the same position. But it's going to be up to them."
Rackers will have a say, too. He had the Bengals' eyes bulging at minicamp with his consistent kicks into the end zone. But they thought he looked like a different guy over the weekend, when he rarely got the ball by the 8- to 10-yard line. It's a good thing the Bengals are calling all kickers, because one of them helped.
"Jeff Walker came up to me and said, "You're putting your plant foot down a little too far away from the ball,' " Rackers said. "That makes complete sense because I was hitting the ball off the end of my foot. So we'll have fun tomorrow."
Hey, the kid has a sense of humor. Asked if kicking new balls made a difference, Rackers said, "It may have been if I would have hit any of them solid."
Coach Bruce Coslet is concerned about Costello's strained hip flexor from last preseason, an injury that shelved him for the first 10 games of the regular season and pretty much sealed the Bengals' plunge into oblivion on special teams without their punter, kickoff man and holder.
Coslet is concerned about the injury possibly nagging Costello, but Costello says his leg is stronger than it was at this time last year.
"I actually feel like I'm better off now than before I got hurt," Costello said. "I've learned how to deal with my body and understand how to keep myself healthy. Sometimes something bad has to happen for you to learn."