12-7-01, 12:55 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
For wide receiver Ron Dugans, leader of the Bengals' beleaguered special teams, losing long snapper Brad St. Louis for the rest of the season with a groin tear is like losing the quarterback on offense.
"It's like losing the quarterback and the center," said Al Roberts, the beleaguered coach of the beleaguered special teams. "This is going to be the first game we've snapped without him since the fiasco of a couple of years ago."
That would be 1999, when the Bengals went through five snappers, three holders and two rookie punters in a season they had four kicks blocked or deflected and Doug Pelfrey missed nine of his 27 field-goal tries.
But 2001 has also turned into an odyssey for Roberts, in his fifth season with the club:
Only one NFL kicker has more field-goal misses than the nine Neil Rackers has with five games left.
Six punters have a lower net average than rookie Nick Harris' 35.1, which includes last week's block for a Tampa Bay touchdown.
There have been three kick returns against the Bengals for at least 65 yards, including Derrick Mason's 101-yard touchdown that started the loss to Tennessee and punctuated the Bengals' slide to the bottom of the league's kickoff coverage stats. On the average, they allow foes to reach their own 32-yard line.
And then there was the penalty that even got mild-mannered head coach Dick LeBeau hot at Roberts on the sideline. It happened in that ill-fated Tennessee game. After a timeout, the Bengals' specialists still lined up with 12 men.
"I understand in this school when the kids fail, they flunk the teacher," said Roberts Thursday.
Has there been anyone flayed on talk radio more than Roberts during the past six weeks? Anyone who isn't at war with the United States? Roberts doesn't shrug the responsibility, but the St. Louis injury is representative of the holes Roberts feels he has been gamely plugging all year.
"Teams have hit us in our rookie-ism," Roberts said. "They've found the spots where we've been hurt. A lot of times you don't have to start those guys on offense and defense, but you have to start them on special teams."
After practice Thursday, Roberts thought there was a good shot tight end Kirk McMullen would make his long snapping debut in the NFL Sunday. But the Bengals were still trying to figure out how to fill St. Louis' roster spot. Some would like the club to pursue another tight end with the team down to two, but Bengals President Mike Brown said Thursday he's leaning to people already on the practice squad who know the system.
McMullen, a first-year player out of Pittsburgh activated twice from the squad this year, has snapped for field goals and extra points since high school. But he has only punt snapped in a college all-star game two years ago.
Still, Rackers and Harris figure they have worked with McMullen about 30 percent of the time since training camp and feel comfortable with him. So does Roberts, who says McMullen knows the offense, "and he passed my test wonderfully this morning. I've been working him since training camp and not letting him get too far away."
But the Bengals could also sign Randy Chevrier after he joined the practice squad Tuesday. Chevrier, a rookie who has already been on as many NFL teams (three) as languages he speaks fluently (English, French, Italian), is out of McGill of Quebec and became the 12th player ever drafted out of a Canadian college when the Jaguars took him in the seventh round. He got cut, got picked up by Dallas, and snapped in eight games for the Cowboys before
getting cut after his Nov. 11 field-goal snap hit the holder in the shoulder and led to kicker Tim Seder's season-ending ankle injury.
"That was my fault, but I don't see it happening again," said Chevrier, a 290-pound defensive tackle who started playing football when he was 19. "I've changed the way I hold the ball and how I get into my stance."
Roberts said Chevrier, "could kick for us right now," but what worries him is that he is still stepping according to Dallas' protections and not the ones for the Bengals. "He's not really ironed into us. McMullen is," Roberts said.
If the coaches want another tight end for Sunday, Brown figures the Bengals can turn to Michigan State's Josh Keur. He was signed to the practice squad Nov. 20 and has a two-week head start on anyone the Bengals sign now.
But they may have to sign Chevrier from the squad for Sunday's game just for insurance in case McMullen gets hurt or struggles. The back-up snappers are outside linebacker Steve Foley and rookie end Justin Smith, but they haven't exactly snapped their way into immortality.
Which gets us back to the human punching bag in Roberts. Fate took him into his hands Wednesday, when St. Louis reached for a ball in individual drills, felt his plant foot slip on practice grass he called, "not very good," and tore his left groin. They think it could take him as many as eight weeks to recover.
"That's the NFL. That's injuries," Roberts said. "We don't want to talk about it. They happen and we have to deal with them."
Roberts had to deal with them early, when cornerbacks Rodney Heath (out for the year) and Robert Bean (hamstring), were both out for the meeting with Pro Bowl kick returner Desmond Howard in Detroit. Heath and Bean were Roberts' safeties on kick coverage and he replaced them with veteran Darryl Williams and rookie Bo Jennings, in his second NFL game. Howard found Jennings' side for returns of 65 and 91 yards.
"When one guy goes down, it ends up moving another guy to another position or bringing in a new guy," Dugans said. "That might seem like a little thing to people, but it's big. (Roberts) does all the right things. He watches film. He tells us what to look for. He puts us in the right spot.
"Some guys might not want to be on special teams," Dugans said. "They might go 90 percent when on special teams on every down you have to go 100 percent because if you don't have that other 10 percent, you're going to get a 101-yard return against you."
Roberts believes some of that "rookie-ism," was at work when Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber blocked Harris' punt for a touchdown by simply sliding into the slot and outnumbering the Bengals by one at the line. The Bengals say they worked on that with the only relief a quick punt with Harris taking as few steps as possible.
"It falls on Al, unfortunately, more than anybody else because he's the whole special teams coordinator and sometimes that's not fair," Harris said. "I know I could take the blame for the blocked punt and not getting it off fast enough.
"We spend a lot of time in the gym walking through things," Harris said. "We watch film, but he shows people what the teams' tendencies are here and there physically, not just visually on the board. So in that way, I think he's a great coach."
Roberts won't win any strong mayor elections in Cincinnati. But he seems to have support on his unit.
"He's a very detailed coach," McMullen said. "He'll sit down with you for an hour, as long as you want."
But Roberts knows his fate is now at the snap of McMullen's fingers.