BY GEOFF HOBSON
Brian DeMarco couldn't believe it when Jim Lippincott called this morning to tell him the Bengals had released him. He still couldn't believe it a few hours later as he stood in front of his Paul Brown Stadium locker with wife Vanessa trying to figure out what to pack.
"I'm shocked," said DeMarco, a six-year veteran. "Just shocked. I had no idea. No one said a word. Just out of nowhere."
But DeMarco, the club's starting right guard less than 48 hours ago, didn't go out bashing coaches or management. He had been in charge of the offensive line's kangaroo court, but in deference to his former teammates, he ripped up the fine list before leaving.
"Tell my boys," DeMarco said, "that they're all off the hook."
DeMarco, 28, came over from Jacksonville as a free agent before last season and started the first seven games before bone chips in both elbows forced season-ending surgery. He said he had no problems with the elbows this season, and thought he played well in Friday's 21-13 loss to Detroit in the preseason finale. On the Bengals' first play of the game, he helped spring running back Corey Dillon for a 20-yard gain.
"I only missed one practice because of the elbows and that was a two-a-day where I took the second practice off," DeMarco said. "I know I had a bad game against the Bears (last week), but I thought I played well in this one. I know they save some money (by releasing him), but all Lippy told me was they wanted to go in a different direction."
DeMarco was scheduled to make $950,000 this season, but it wasn't a money issue for the Bengals. Lippincott said the club went off the coaching grades. As a vested veteran, DeMarco is confident he'll get picked up as a free agent, but he was sad to leave for a variety of reasons.
He bought a farm north of Cincinnati and felt settled with Vanessa and their three children. Plus, DeMarco felt the team shifting in the right direction.
"The biggest thing is uprooting the family. We like it here," DeMarco said. "I had a good feeling about this year. It looks like it's going the right way. I'm going to miss these guys. I'm going to call them in the next few days when things cool down."
While a neighbor took care of the kids, Vanessa drove to the stadium with her husband to help him pack.
"We've been together since high school," she said. "I came to help him."
"Wherever we go," DeMarco said, "we walk in together and walk out together."
BOSSES BACK RACKERS: Bengals President Mike Brown and coach Bruce Coslet aren't holding an open tryout for kickers this week. For the moment, they are sticking with rookie Neil Rackers despite his shaky debut Friday night with missed field goals from 45 and 27 yards and a missed extra point.
Brown lived through Doug Pelfrey missing four of his first seven NFL field-goal tries back in 1993, which cost them a 9-6 loss to Indianapolis in Game 2, and he's not pushing any panic buttons yet. But he does hope Rackers takes some practice on the Paul Brown Stadium grass, which is slightly different than the grass on the practice fields outside the facility. "That was the kind of outing he probably had in his nightmares," Brown said today. "He's not alone. Their guy (Lions Pro Bowl kicker Jason Hanson) didn't do any better. He was probably excited a little bit and rushing into it. I thought the field was fine. With it being our home field, he's going to have to kick in there some."
Coslet, an old special teams coach, said today he spoke with Rackers on the sidelines during the game and in the locker room after the game. Coslet told him nothing had changed. He had a bad game, and to work on his mechanics.
Quarterback Akili Smith also had some words for Rackers.
"I told him in the shower, 'You get that out of your system? Don't let it happen again.' It's as simple as that," Smith said. "I asked him, 'Did you get that out of your system?' he said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Don't let it happen again, that's all.' Hopefully, he'll come out in two weeks and he'll hit every field goal he has the opportunity to hit."
Coslet said the club isn't going to judge the kicking game on one or two games, echoing the theme of the night: "There's not a kicker in the league who hasn't had a day like that, whether they're a 10-year veteran or a rookie trying too hard."
Punter Daniel Pope, Rackers' holder, knows one of the veterans. On Friday night, Pope watched Hanson miss a 43-yarder and 40-yarder.
"And he's a two-time Pro Bowler," said Pope, who was in the Lions' camp last year. "It happens. It happens to the best. Neil just happens to be a rookie. He just happens to be in a tough situation in his first year. Neil Rackers will be just fine. He's good at what he does. He's got a great leg and he's proved it through the year. He just had a bad game."
Pope said the operation of the snap and hold was clean and quick. In fact, if Rackers took heart in anything, it was the how quick the kicks were.
"I think our get-offs were just phenomenal if you're looking at it from that standpoint," said Rackers, who missed his field goals from 45 and 27 yards to the left. "But I was definitely rushing it. Trying to hit the ball too hard. It makes you go out and work. I'll probably go through some drills Sunday (a players' day off) and come out to practice Monday just fine. A lot of guys said, 'Keep your head up,' and, 'We're behind you.' "
The main thing Rackers will be working on is keeping his shoulder over the ball. He said it was, "flying open, so I was coming around the ball," instead of straight through the ball. Shoulder position is a key element in Rackers' style because the leg follows the shoulder in a scissors motion that he picked up as a high schooler from long-time Jets kicker Pat Leahy.
TACKLING A PROBLEM: How bad was the Bengals' tackling Friday night? When radio analyst Dave Lapham observed in Coslet's post-game news conference that there seemed to be quite a few missed tackles, Coslet told his ex-teammate and offensive lineman, "Quite a few? You could tackle better than that and you couldn't tackle anybody.
"It happened to uncharacteristic guys. The way that (backup strong safety) Lawrence Wright made our team was by being a demon on special teams. He hardly ever missed. I can't tell you how many yards after contact they got, but it was a lot. That's got to stop. You have to tackle in this league and that's all there is to it."
No one seemed very impressed that five injured defensive starters didn't play and the other starters filtered in and out of the first half only. But it's the first half that had people upset as the Lions rolled up 260 yards and scored the first two times they had the ball.
What worries the Bengals is they gave up 38 of their 93 points in the preseason in the first quarter.
"We can't play defense like this. We just can't," said nose tackle Oliver Gibson. "Teams come out and jump us and it's got to stop. It starts with me. It starts with everybody. Trust me. We'll get it fixed."
Defensive end John Copeland said he sensed something wrong in the warmups and there were veterans who weren't pleased with the mind-set before the game. Middle linebacker Brian Simmons said, "The defense came out flat. I thought our tackling was good the first three games, but tonight everything was bad. It was a very poor showing by the defense."
Copeland said tackling is the major problem and he thinks that's more a mental thing: "We don't tackle in practice. It's not like you go out here and tackle every day. That doesn't mean anything. You've been playing football all your damn life and you should be able to tackle. You have to be ready to play football."
SMITH EARNS BYE: Quarterback Akili Smith is on top of his game heading into the regular-season after completing six of eight passes for 67 yards. His goal is to hit between 60 and 65 percent of his throws and he finished the preseason at 65 percent by hitting 48 of his 74 passes with no interceptions.
Friday's big play came after Smith made a run fake to running back Corey Dillon and saw the safety back away from rookie receiver Peter Warrick running down the right sideline. That left Warrick beating cornerback Bryant Westbrook one-on-one for a 53-yard catch.
Which didn't really surprise Smith because in the training room before the game he heard receivers coach Steve Mooshagian talking to Warrick and the other starting receiver, James Hundon, about beating Westbrook.
"They were talking about that move faking like they're going outside and then going inside," Smith said. "As soon as he faked like he was going inside, Westbrook thought he was going to break back out, so he slipped inside and there he was."
Smith has never downplayed his rivalry with the Browns and the quarterback they took No. 1 instead of him in 1999 in Tim Couch. But Friday night, he did.
"I'm not going to worry about that this year," Smith said. "I'm just going to go out there and play ball, The way I look at it, it's going to be a brown and white uniform on the other side. Today it was blue and white. That's the the way I'm looking at it."
Smith's only bad moment of the night came when Lions defensive end Robert Porcher took advantage of right tackle Jamain Stephens' too wide of a slide on a screen pass and got to Smith in a big hurry. Porcher went for Smith's knees after Smith got rid of the ball and Porcher got booed the two times the Paul Brown Stadium scoreboards showed the play.
"That was jive on (Porcher's) part," Stephens said. "The ball was gone when he did that."
That had to conjure up some bad karma for Bengals' fans. It was Porcher who barged into the Bengals' backfield in an exhibition game five years and eight days before and forced running back Ki-Jana Carter to make the cut that tore up his knee the first time.
DILLON PRIMED: Bengals runnig back Corey Dillon sent training camp back to the stone age Friday night when he churned out 7.5 yards per his six carries just a scant 12 days after his first practice of the year. After the Bengals barely averaged two yards per rush last week against the Bears, the running game was emphasized even though a staple of the rush attack was on the sidelines in the person of right tackle Willie Anderson (pulled side muscle).
"We're a 4.5-yards per carry team. That's where we want to be," Dillon said. "I knew my time was going to be limited, so I wanted to go out there and get a fast start and be productive."
INJURY UPDATE: Maybe that bye week next week on Opening Day isn't such a bad thing for the Bengals. Everyone but DT Tom Barndt (questionable with a chest injury) and RB Michael Basnight (out with a broken wrist) is probable. Even after a few nicks Friday night originally looked bad. The worst was KR Tremain Mack, who bruised an ankle and has a mild hamstring pull. Trainer Paul Sparling said DE Vaughn Booker couldn't play now as he recovers from what the club believes is a burst cyst in the back of his knee, but can in two weeks.