12-8-02, 11:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
CHA RLOTTE, N.C. – Some of Travis Dorsch's teammates weren't talking, but they clearly weren't pleased with the decision to put him under the gun in his first NFL game as the punter in Sunday's 52-31 loss to the Panthers.
But they expressed empathy for the rookie who suffered one of the rockiest debuts in Bengals' history after finding out this past Wednesday he would replace Nick Harris.
Management has wanted to see the fourth-round investment perform before the end of the season and the coaches wanted to make sure he had a fair weather game. Sunday's date was most likely the last to be played in above freezing temperatures.
"I wanted him to get some game experience," said Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau. "He led the nation in punting last year, so I didn't expect him to have that kind of performance punting the ball."
Dorsch, who led the country in punting last season at Purdue with a 48.4 average, had his first NFL kick from scrimmage returned for a touchdown by wide receiver Steve Smith, his third returned the distance for 87 yards by Smith, and saw his fifth and last one of the day go 10 yards to the Bengals 20. His other two went 28 and 41 yards, and he won't be the punter this coming Sunday against Jacksonville.
"Physically yes, but mentally, maybe no. I have to go back and watch the film," said Dorsch when asked if he was ready after being inactive every week. Asked if it was fair for him to make his debut in Game 13, Dorsch said, "Yeah, that's why I'm here."
Dorsch bravely met the media, still in full uniform, after the game. He occasionally wiped his face with a towel, composed but visibly surprised about what had just happened.
"The funny thing is," Dorsch said. "I kicked a couple of good balls
and a couple of bad balls and the (best) balls I kicked were the ones that were returned. I might have been better off trying to punt them out of bounds."
Dorsch said he tried to kick his last one directionally and it did go out-of-bounds, but only at the Bengals 20.
The two touchdowns appeared to come on low, driving kicks that are tailor made for returns, particularly the first one that Smith took 61 yards for the touchdown that made it 16-7 early in the second quarter. But the Bengals have had trouble covering punts the last month and the same thing happened that happened last month in Baltimore on the other punt return touchdown they allowed this year on Lamont Brightful's 95-yard return:
Flier Ron Dugans, their special teams ace, got erased in a double team and the punter was the last line of defense. Dorsch dove and Smith was gone.
"It's hard anytime these guys have momentum and break through the first and second wall of people," Dorsch said. "He only has to put one move on me. He's a returner in this league for a reason. He's a good athlete. I did the best I could to get him out of bounds there, but he went by me.
"It's hard because I feel like not only did I not perform as well as I could, but I feel like I let our team down a little bit," Dorsch said. "Those punt returns definitely were momentum changers in the game. . . It's a momentum changer not just for me, but for the whole team. There's got to be someone who is ultimately responsible. As the punter, you might become the one ultimately responsible. I have to do a better job and we have to do a better job."
As if to follow the bizarre script of this season, Dorsch's first NFL punt turned out to be a free kick from his own 20 following a safety and his punt went only 40 yards.
"In all the scenarios you run through your head, that definitely wasn't one of them," Dorsch said. "But that's easy just to go out there and kick the ball. There's nobody running at you, so it's something you need to do a good job of and I didn't do it on that particular one."
Dorsch thought his best kick came on the 87-yard return, where fullback Lorenzo Neal was the first guy down and missed when he dove at Smith's feet. Neal was flagged for being downfield early.
"Trying to get down there to make a play," Neal said. "The punter's a good kid, a good guy. He went out there and played hard. That's all you can ask."
Some players were taken by surprise by the decision to go to Dorsch.
"Strange," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "It was a big surprise for us and I guess it showed, but I'm not going to say anything about a part of the team I'm not on. It shouldn't have any kind of affect on the offense."
Cornerback Artrell Hawkins is never surprised how a rookie plays.
"Travis didn't play a good game, but hell, he's a damn rookie," said Hawkins said. "That's what rookies do, whether they play the 15th game of the season or they play the first game of the season. The first one is always tough for a rookie.
"You can look at it both ways." Hawkins said. "You're not having such a great year, you want to take a look at him. What's it going to hurt? Or, you could say, 'He hasn't played this year much. Nick (Harris) is doing a good enough job. Why take him out?' So you could look at it either way."
Quarterback Jon Kitna has been there. He was asked if it was fair.
"I've been in that situation where you haven't played," Kitna said. "To go in there in the (13th) game of the year, your timing is not right. It's a big difference between preseason and training camp and minicamps and all that stuff. When you get in that game and the bullets are flying. . .and your timing isn't right. It's a tough deal for him. It's a no-win situation."