BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals' stunning release of starting right guard Brian DeMarco today signals a sea change on the offense line for Cincinnati's regular-season opener in two weeks.
The move elevates third-year lineman Mike Goff to the No. 1 spot and allows the club to keep injured running back Michael Basnight on the active roster. It also means Scott Rehberg or Brock Gutierrez is probably going to make his first Bengals start against Cleveland with the Bengals forced to replace left guard Matt O'Dwyer for the opener because of his NFL suspension.
Other waived veterans were running back Sedrick Shaw, defensive linemen Andre Purvis and Chad Pegues, defensive backs Sirr Parker and JoJuan Armour and tackle Mike Doughty. The free-agent rookies who got the word were receivers Marvin Chalmers and LaVell Boyd, offensive lineman Roger Roesler and cornerback Brian Gray.
By opting to keep Basnight on the active 53-man roster even though he can't play for about another month instead of shelving him for the year on injured reserve, the Bengals kept nine offensive linemen instead of ten. With help from his solid outing against the Lions Friday night, right tackle Jamain Stephens won the last spot and signed a one-year contract extension through 2001. With DeMarco gone and the 6-6, 335-pound Stephens in the fold for another year, Stephens will get some snaps as a backup right guard to make him more versatile for a nine-man line.
"We were excited coming into camp because we had the same line back intact for the first time since this coaching staff has been here," said offensive line coach Paul Alexander today. "Now we're even more excited because we've got a guy that unseated one of those guys and we've got regard for Brian. We feel we're better (at right guard) than we were last year. Except for the (poor) pass protection against Atlanta and (lack of) running the ball against Chicago, we've done pretty well in the preseason. The quarterback looks pretty comfortable back there."
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DeMarco, a six-year veteran who signed as a free-agent from Jacksonville before last season, started the first seven games of '99 with surgery on both elbows wiping out the rest of the year. The 6-8, 330-pound Rehberg has picked up his play the last two weeks and Gutierrez was solid in starting all four preseason games while center Rich Braham rests his knee for the opener.
"(DeMarco) didn't grade out as well as the other guys," said Bengals director of pro/college personnel Jim Lippincott. "We felt we could put together an offensive line with a different mixture of guys. It's time for Mike (Goff) to show up and play and he's been doing that in pretty good fashion."
Rehberg is the leading candidate to the start at left guard against his old team. He started 10 games at right guard, two at left tackle and one at right tackle before for the Browns. Or, they could stick with Gutierrez at center for his first NFL start and put Braham back at his old spot of left guard.
"Nobody looks good in their first two weeks in a new system," Alexander said of Rehberg. "But he's come on. He graded out at 93 percent in the last game. He's got a unique body that fits our system. Brock had a nice camp and he's guy who knows what to do and how to do it after four years here. Plus, he brings that intangible of toughness and competitiveness."
Since giving left tackle Rod Jones a three-year, $9 million deal in February, the Bengals have extended the contracts of four offensive linemen in Jones, Gutierrez, Stephens, and right tackle Willie Anderson, and probably won't stop there. DeMarco was scheduled to make $950,000 this season, but they could give some of it to O'Dwyer and Braham, both free agents at the end of the season.
Count Alexander as a Basnight fan because of his straight-ahead power running: "If it takes us having just nine guys to keep Basnight, so be it."
In what may have been their first personnel move based on Paul Brown Stadium's grass rather than Cinergy Field's turf, the Bengals opted to keep Basnight around even though his broken navicular bone in his right wrist is taking longer to heal than first projected. Trainer Paul Sparling said the earliest he could get into a functional cast to carry the ball would be Oct. 1.
"Basnight is a big back who fits our offense," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "And besides Corey (Dillon), he's probably the only guy that fits that mold. When Basnight can get back later in the season, that will help us. We're playing on grass now and we're going to need that style of back like Corey and Basnight in November and December."
The Bengals will try to make a deals with five of the released players who are eligible for the practice squad after 4 p.m. Monday. They will also scour the waiver wire tonight before finalizing their 53-man roster Monday.
The roster currently breaks down with three quarterbacks, four tight ends, six running backs, five receivers, nine offensive linemen, eight defensive linemen, seven linebackers, nine defensive backs, one kicker and one punter. The Bengals are keeping their eyes peeled for a wide receiver, a third quarterback and anyone else who is better than the last player at each position.