Covington headed back

8-31-01, 7:40 p.m.

Updated: 9-1-01, 7:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

According to a source close to Scott Covington, the Bengals' erstwhile quarterback is headed back to Cincinnati Saturday night and probably another spot on the roster.

The Bengals have declined to comment specifically on their quarterback situation since they learned Scott Mitchell's severely sprained ankle is supposed to keep him out at least six weeks.

But the source said barring anything unforseen, Covington is expected to sign a contract Sunday on the day the Bengals must cut down to 53 players. That indicates the Bengals are sticking with four quarterbacks and sending a shock wave through the final roster.

With Mitchell's injury not serious enough to shelve him for the rest of the year but serious enough to leave the Bengals without three healthy quarterbacks for at least a few weeks, four quarterbacks look to be a way to go.

"If you keep one more quarterback than you normally would," Bengals President Mike Brown said, "that means you have to go lighter somewhere else."

Jim Lippincott, Bengals director of pro/college personnel, said it would be logical "to sign the guy you've trained," but he also said the Bengals would probably want to hold off on signing another veteran until Sunday and the pre-season games (and injuries) are finished.

But Covington appears to be first on the list for a variety of reasons topped off by his knowledge of the offense and the club as a seventh-round draft pick from 1999.

The team brass was impressed the way he kept his mouth shut during an awkward training camp in

which Mitchell, Jon Kitna and Akili Smith were involved in their quarterback derby while Covington got few practice snaps and none in pre-season games before he was released last Monday.

Several of Covington's teammates thought he played well enough to make the team and now in a quirk of fate, it looks like he has. For at least as long as it takes Mitchell to get healthy.

There's an outside shot if Smith's tendinitis in his throwing shoulder doesn't come around this week, Covington could be the No. 2 quarterback behind Kitna for the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against New England.

Mitchell, moving around without crutches in a walking boot Friday, thinks he only tweaked his left ankle in Thursday's pre-season finale.

He says he'll be back in less than four weeks.

"I had an injury a long time ago like this in college," said Mitchell, 33, who wasn't joking, "and they tell me the build-up of the scar tissue has helped me. It's calcified and crusted over. It's good that I'm old."

But Bengals trainer Paul Sparling, who has already ruled Mitchell out of the regular-season opener in eight days with the high ankle sprain, says four to eight weeks. He also says the injury is far more significant than the left knee sprain that shelved Mitchell last year for two weeks and one game.

And besides, look at the picture on the front of "The Cincinnati Enquirer ," sports page Friday morning, Sparling said, and that should tell you it's a pretty severe injury.

Whatever the case, when Mitchell went down, the Bengals were just 1:50 away from the pre-season injury that wouldn't foul up their roster.

And then there are the spots that aren't affected by the number of quarterbacks when the Bengals make final cuts Sunday. Bengals President Mike Brown indicated rookie punter Nick Harris was impressive enough Thursday night in his Bengals' debut to be in the mix for the final roster, "even though there would be an element of unfairness to (Daniel Pope) the guy who was here all throughout camp."

For a team looking at its tightest cutdown in years, the possibility of keeping four quarterbacks was the last thing it wanted to hear:

_ It could mean the end of third-round pick Sean Brewer's rookie season even though they feel he is already a fine blocker. But the Bengals could go light with three tight ends (Tony McGee, Marco Battaglia, Brad St. Louis) by putting Brewer on injured reserve with a pulled groin.

_With backup free safety Darryl Williams (ankle) looking to be healthy for the opener, they could keep just nine defensive backs instead of 10. But if that's the case, how do they keep both safeties JoJuan Armour and Tremain Mack? They have been impressed with Armour and Mack is the kick returner trying to regain his 1999 Pro Bowl form.

_One place it seems like they can't go light is at wide receiver because of injuries, which means six have a very good chance of making it.

Darnay Scott, Peter Warrick Chad Johnson and Ron Dugans are healthy. Danny Farmer (knee) could be out a week or two, seventh-rounder T.J. Houshmandzadeh (foot) has been out three weeks, and Damon Griffin missed Thursday with a hamstring injury. With whispers strong that Houshmandzadeh will get picked up if released, he may now be in.

Or maybe it's Griffin because he has returned punts in the NFL and Houshmandzadeh hasn't.

"We have a couple of guys who are hurting at wide receiver," Brown said. "You have to be able to line up on Sunday and you have to make sure you have some healthy ones if you have some that aren't, but have to keep them otherwise."

_Six receivers would mean five running backs and with Brandon Bennett, Curtis Keaton and Rudi Johnson playing so well at tailback, fullback Clif Groce could be the odd man out with fullback Lorenzo Neal coming off his best game.

So Mitchell's injury could force the roster to break down like this: 4 QBs, 6 WRs, 5 RBs, 3 TEs, 10 OL for 28 on offense. 8 DL, 6 LBs, 9 DBs for 23 on defense, plus one punter and one kicker.

Mitchell told head coach Dick LeBeau Friday morning to plan on him being back soon even though Sparling is quite dubious about high ankle sprains.

"I'm not in a whole lot of pain," Mitchell said. "I don't think it's that high. I get a sense that it's more a tweaked ankle. Typically, I've been a pretty quick healer."

Mitchell, who got injured on a fourth-and-five from the Colts 39 by defensive end David Warren, chalked up the sack to a pass coverage that didn't give him a throw.

"I think initially it looked a whole lot worse than it is," Mitchell said. "I think I'm being realistic when I say less than four weeks."

Sparling isn't so sure.

"He's going to miss a fair amount of time," Sparling said.

It looks like the Bengals have decided that means four quarterbacks and not three.

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