BY GEOFF HOBSON
Special teams coach Al Roberts has said the Bengals' kickoff competition is like a title bout. If rookie Neil Rackers is going to dethrone seven-year incumbent Doug Pelfrey, he'll have to deliver a decisive knockout.
So Rackers, a sixth-round pick out of Illinois, just may have ended the reign of one of the most popular players in club history Friday night in Atlanta's Georgia Dome when he drilled field goals of 47 and 41 yards. He hit the 47-yarder well enough that it hit the right upright and still went through, but Roberts and coach Bruce Coslet refused to publicly give the job to Rackers after the game. Coslet also called the punting competition between Brad Costello and Dan Pope even. Bengals President Mike Brown said tonight Pelfrey and Rackers will get one more shot in a game when the Bears help the Bengals open Paul Brown Stadium Saturday night. Brown indicated a kicker and punter will be among the cuts when the club must get to 65 players by Aug. 22.
It's ironic Chicago is the final hurdle for the kickers. The Bears, drafting five spots behind the Bengals in the sixth round, were on the phone gathering Rackers' information in preparation for drafting the homegrown Illinois kicker when Cincinnati selected him. The Bears will probably be interested in either kicker the Bengals cut, which means it will be hard to pull off a trade because teams know the Bengals have to lop one of them.
"It's never over until it's over," Brown said. "Doug's been with us a long time and has been a very good kicker for us. It's not called yet. He's got some competition this year."
Pelfrey also hit a 20-yard field goal in the 31-16 loss to the Falcons, but the writing appears to be on the wall. Struggling with inconsistent snapping and holding last season, Pelfrey was 0-for-2 on tries from 40 to 49 yards in '99, sailing 47- and 41-yarders wide left. Also helping Rackers was both his kickoffs went into the end zone. One went two yards in, the other a yard. Another sign? Pelfrey has yet to kick off in both preseason games. "The best players are going to make the team," Coslet said at today's news conference. "The competition isn't over yet. . .
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"(Rackers) hit the upright and it happened to go in. He's a talented kid. Doug is a talented kicker. He's been in the league forever, and for years he was the most accurate guy in the league. I don't know how it's going to turn out."
It turned out well for Rackers when he got the first chance to kick Friday and cashed the 47-yarder. It was a high snap from rookie Brad St. Louis, but Costello brought it down and Rackers was able to fight through it and get his leg on it.
"It took longer than I wanted it, but I got it off. I hit it well," Rackers said. "I never take anything for granted, whether I'm competing with Doug or not. I figure I'm going against hundreds of guys out there, so you're always competing."
The Bengals haven't been pleased with what they believe to be Pelfrey's slow operation, scars of trying to adjust to last year's anarchy around him.
The punting duel is virtually even after the dust cleared Friday night. Costello averaged 53 yards on two punts, but got a break when a short one bounced the Bengal way. Dan Pope continues to be more consistent, hitting three for a 47-yard average.
"Pope is pushing Costello," Coslet said. "That's a tossup right now, too."
Pope's inability to kick off hurts him. Costello put one of his two kickoffs a yard deep into the end zone. From a roster standpoint, the most appealing kicker-punter duo is probably Rackers-Costello because both can kick off.
"The kickoffs are markedly improved over last year, that's for sure," Coslet said after the game. "Our kickoff coverage can be a little bit better. (The kicks) are high and if we kick it two yards deep, we can't give it to them on the 30-yard line."
The Bengals' return game looks as good as ever. Craig Yeast almost broke a Dan Stryzinski punt all the way. He went 15 yards against a punter who led the NFL in the '90s five times with forced fair catches. Rookie running back Curtis Keaton showed some moves for the second straight game, taking one kickoff 42 yards and another one 31 yards.