6-23-03, 7:35 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Darrin Simmons actually scouted Bengals punter Travis Dorsch more than a month before he became his coach.
Dorsch would balk, but go back to pre-game warmups on Dec. 8, 2002 in Charlotte, N.C. Simmons is the Panthers' assistant special teams coach and the rookie Dorsch is an object of curiosity. Despite being the Bengasls' fourth-round draft pick, he has been on the roster but on the inactive list for the first dozen games of the season.
"I could see he was hitting the ball low before the game," Simmons says, "and when I came back into the locker room I said, 'We're going to be able to return some today.'"
The rest isn't history for Simmons and Dorsch. Just water under the bridge. Carolina return man Steve Smith took two of those low liners back for touchdowns, including Dorsch's first NFL punt, in a 52-31 meltdown that shoehorned the good, bad, and ugly of the Bengals' 2-14 season into one numbing afternoon.
When Simmons re-surfaced as one of Marvin Lewis' first hires as the Bengals' special teams coach in Cincinnati 40 days later, he couldn't help himself.
"I think one time this spring Travis said something like, 'I wish that game had never happened,'" Simmons says. "And I told him, 'Boy, I'm sure glad it did.'"
But Simmons brought more than his needle to town. He also brought the signature microscope from the special teams school of Scott O'Brien and has, "straightened (Dorsch) up little bit," incumbent punter Nick Harris says.
Dorsch, who still sees himself as the underdog in the approaching training camp derby with Harris, says Simmons has given his career rhyme and reason. He gives Simmons the highest compliment in the solitary world of kickers and punters.
"He's taught me to teach myself," Dorsch says. "Last year, I was just trying to be an athlete and kick the ball as high and as far as possible. Even in college, I'd go out there and just do it, not really knowing what I was doing. Now when I see the end result, I have more of an idea why it happened. Every day I pick up something new to think about. I'm pleased, but not satisfied. It's been hard. Two steps forward, one step backward. I'm trying to learn techniques and create new muscle memory."
Training camp should be a memory in more ways than one. Dorsch thinks both he and Harris are going to be punting in the NFL this season, just on different teams. He hopes he'll be here, but right now that's not how he sees it.
"Nick is the incumbent. It's his job right now," Dorsch says. "I need to be better. I can't be as good as him. When you have to take somebody's job away, you have to be better than him, and Nick has been punting well. It's a tall order for me this fall, but it's a task I'm up to."
Dorsch would be the first to tell you he wasn't last year, which began (how good is your memory?) with him as the favorite to beat out Neil Rackers as the Bengals' field goal kicker. At least Rackers thought so in what turned out to be a season-long soap opera that culminated in the Carolina fiasco.
Dorsch, who led the nation in punting at Purdue in becoming the only man to ever lead the Big Ten in both kicking and punting in the same season, couldn't beat out Rackers in training camp from field-goal range. Only the Bengals and Jaguars had looked at Dorsch as a kicker in the months before the draft, but he had enough talent that the Bengals wanted to hold on to him. That turned out to be the crusher and not Steve Smith dancing down the field in Charlotte.
"The lowest point wasn't the game," Dorsch says. "The lowest point was finding out I not only not got the job, but I wasn't going to get the chance to play anywhere else."
Lewis and Simmons arrived to shut down the circus and informed Dorsch he was just a punter and that there was no way he could become good at anything if he was doing both. And since Simmons punted himself in college at Kansas and worked last season with NFL punt champion Todd Sauerbrun, Dorsch has been all ears.
"Never," says Dorsch when asked if he's ever had a kicker for a special teams coach. "He's very technically sound. He's got a great eye. We watch nearly every kick we take on film up in his office. We're going to be so prepared at camp because he's had us go over every situation at least a couple of times this spring."
Simmons not only brought his needle and microscope, but his eraser. What happened Dec. 8 is just that. Another day on the calendar.
"I don't know how fair that situation was for him," Simmons says. "That was a very, very difficult position to be put in. But I told all the kickers when I got here that as far as I'm concerned, it's a blank slate."
It was a blank slate. Now it's as busy as rush hour. Simmons has broken down not only the mechanics of the position, but also the mechanics of situations. There have been tackling drills. Bad-snap drills. There have been last-second field-goal drills, where the long snapper (Brad St. Louis), holder (Dorsch or Harris), and kicker (Rackers) practice taking their positions on the sidelines. They do that so they are as close as possible to where they have to be on the field as the clock winds down.
When they're sitting around Simmons' office, they're not just sitting around. Simmons has been known to fire out things like, "third-and-three, ball is on the 14 with 20 seconds left." How long is the quarterback going to take to call a timeout is something he might want to know.
"As the punter and holder, Darrin says it's like being the quarterback out there. You have to be ready for every situation," Dorsch says. "They're the type of plays if they happen during the season, you just look at each other and say, 'That's something we never practiced for.' We practice it now."
Dorsch and Simmons have been practicing how the 6-6 Dorsch drops the ball on his foot. Not just drops, but drops against the wind and with the wind. Drops on pooch punts and drops on the bombs.
"It's been one of my major forces. If I miss-hit it, it's usually because of the drop," Dorsch says. "That's what we're working the most on. I'm a big guy and I like to hit the ball up and let it fly, but I'm trying to get more consistency."
He would like to get that consistency for Simmons in Cincinnati. But if not. . .
"Who ever gets cut," Dorsch says, "the other guy will be his biggest fan and move on."