11-01-01, 8:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
With the Bengals fighting for the playoffs as the season's halfway point nears, the club opened up a training-camp like kicking derby Thursday when it signed former Giants kicker Jaret Holmes to the practice squad.
Holmes, on his third NFL practice squad since an All-SEC senior season in 1997, arrives with incumbent Neil Rackers in a 4-for-11 slump on field goals.
"We wanted to make sure we have a kicker ready in case things continue," said special teams coach Al Roberts. "Every kick is a value kick now in practice. Every kick, every drill, they are all going to be graded. Yes, like training camp."
Defensive captain Takeo Spikes, who has no desire to wade into the club's kicking controversy, knows Holmes.
"I don't care if the guy is from Alabama," said Spikes, the fiercely partisan Auburn product. "Anyone who kicks it through is fine with me. I don't care who it is."
It just so happens
Holmes played with Spikes at Auburn, where Holmes set the school record with 12 straight field goals. Holmes, who drove 10 hours through Wednesday night from his hometown of Clinton, Miss., trying to figure out why he doesn't have a job, passed muster at the team's three-man tryout last week.
Holmes has made all but one of his 18 NFL field-goal attempts in pre-season and regular-season games.
"Know this," Roberts said. "It's hard to beat Rackers in practice and he kicked well today."
The consensus is Rackers, the club's sixth-round pick in 2000, is now on a game-to-game rope and will most likely get the nod to kick in the next game on Nov. 11 in Jacksonville.
"Neil is our guy for now, but everyone knows we have to get our field-goal percentage up and this guy is an option if he falters," said Bengals President Mike Brown.
Holmes, 25, played in four games last year for New York after being named NFL Europe's Special Teams Player of the Year during the spring of 2000.
He made all his kicks for the Giants, three extra points and field goals of 34 and 27 yards, in the two games he replaced injured Brad Dalusio. He also was the kickoff man for the Giants in the last two games of the regular season before being inactive for the playoffs and getting released in training camp before this season.
"He won at least three ballgames for us," Spikes said of the Auburn days. "I don't know if he's as strong as Rackers. He always seemed to be working. Yeah, when I was doing (extra running) up that hill, I'd see him over there (kicking)."
Holmes sees no problems working with the incumbent, even though it's clear he'll be the man if Rackers missteps.
"We have an understanding. I had an understanding when I was the No. 1 guy and other guys were brought in," Holmes said. "I'm here to do what they want me to do in practice squad development and until they give me the chance to do the other option, I'm his backup and I won't give him any problems in that respect."
Holmes has gotten to know Rackers since they helped christen the first game ever in Paul Brown Stadium during the Aug. 19, 2000 pre-season game the Bengals beat the Bears, 24-20.
Ironically, it was the last game the rookie Rackers
competed with veteran Doug Pelfrey for the Bengals' job, which he won two days later. It was also a game where Holmes continued the Bears kicking derby with rookie Paul Edinger, a race he lost a week later.
Holmes did kick the second extra point in PBS history that night and closed the game's scoring by hitting his only field-goal attempt on a 25-yarder with 7:21 left in the game.
He found Rackers "to be a very nice guy," but PBS' first field wasn't so nice.
"It's 10 times better than it was last year," Holmes said. "It looked pretty last year, but kicking on it wasn't too fun."
Holmes, who made two field-goal tries for the Bears in the '99 season finale, is mystified why the Giants cut him this past training camp. Neither Holmes nor fifth-round pick John Markham stuck and the Giants signed 41-year-old Morten Andersen for the regular season.
"I beat him. They told me I beat him," said Holmes, who was projected to be the guy during the offseason. "They said it didn't look like I was in a rhythm and they wanted to go with a veteran."
Holmes' best day in training camp came when he and Markham had to hit field goals so the team wouldn't have to run. Holmes was perfect, but Giants' insiders have said head coach Jim Fassel was never comfortable with Holmes' consistency in practice or the length of his kickoffs.
Even though Holmes hit his first two tries in pre-season games (from 45 and 30), his 44-yard miss that was wide to the right in the second quarter of a 17-14 loss to the Jets turned out to be the final straw. Apparently because a) the Giants hate losing to the Jets even in preseason, and b) Fassel thought Holmes lost a job that was his to lose.
After taking a break to wonder what more he had to do, Holmes decided kicking is still fun and resumed working out for clubs. He was headed to Indianapolis when the Bengals called.
"You're never safe," Holmes said. "Guys have a great year and then have an off year and they'll be gone. You have to do (well) when they give you the chance and go from there. If it works out, great. If it doesn't, you find out you have to move on."
Holmes made nine of 12 field-goal tries while with Berlin in Europe, where short field goals are discouraged. He said his makes were between 40 and 55 yards and his misses were from the 50 range.
While at Auburn, Holmes hit 39 of his 64 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. But he admitted he's had to make adjustments to the pros.
"Coming out of college, that was my label as a strong-legged kicker," Holmes said. "Obviously the balls have changed and (there are) different little things. I can still put them in the end zone, but you have to change your style and the way you're doing things."
Pelfrey, who has sent every NFL team his workout video in a bid to get back into the league, wasn't surprised about the club's move. After receiving the video, Bengals vice president Paul Brown called him to say he appeared to be hitting the ball well and although they had no interest at this time, Brown told him they had his number.
"I don't want to say much about it," Pelfrey said. "There are teams who have expressed an interest in bringing me in."