5-14-02, 4:00 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
With a week of practice under the belt and another three-day session to start Wednesday, the consensus is the Bengals' offense is a little like Star Wars. It's better the second time around.
From hot reads to catching the ball cold, the scheme offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski introduced last year to much confusion and inexperience is light years ahead of last May.
But like George Lucas, Bratkowski may end up with some different cast members by the time this show ends its run in late December. Bratkowski, not pleased with the absence of Darnay Scott from the voluntary practices, says it's possible that the Bengals could have two new Opening Day starters at wide receiver. As Bratkowski said, it could be any combination of the four receivers who didn't start (T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chad Johnson, Danny Farmer, Ron Dugans) taking over for Scott at split end and Peter Warrick at the flanker if the incumbents don't respond.
Plus, the first- and third-round draft picks are going to get ample opportunity to crack the lineup.
"We have new people who have a chance to come in and contribute at left tackle with Levi Jones at some point during the season and the same at tight end with (Matt) Schobel," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "And we have all the other players back with a year's more experience."
Quarterback Jon Kitna, emboldened by his No. 1 status, couldn't say enough about his consistent work last week with the first-teamers, as opposed to the last minicamp's three-man carousel. But with backup Gus Frerotte poised, that isn't set in stone, either.
"That may change come training camp, too, " Bratkowski said. "We may end up with Gus getting work
with the ones some. That will be up to Coach (Dick) LeBeau and how he wants to handle it, but very easily, if you're going to give him an opportunity, you need to put him in with the ones some."
Last year, tempers were hotter than the reads when it came to chemistry between Kitna and a receiving corps that had five players who were either rookies or second-year players. But last week the receivers went out of their way publicly and privately to say how sharp Kitna looked and how comfortable he was in the offense.
Houshmandzadeh saw Frerotte do something in practice that he rarely saw last year as a rookie when Frerotte double pumped against a two-deep zone and went long to Farmer. But while Frerotte may have the stronger arm, Houshmandzadeh is also impressed with a much more decisive Kitna.
"Gus doesn't look strong, but when that ball hits your hands, there is some pop to it," Houshmandzadeh said. "Jon knows what is going on like our coaches do and he's already had a year with us. We can look at each other now and I know what he wants. Last year, he had to tell me."
Bratkowski chalks up the more briskly efficient practices to the education of the receivers. He doesn't buy the reason for last year's seven-game, 57-point drought is that the three-man quarterback derby in training camp destroyed everyone's timing.
"That's an easy excuse," Bratkowski said. "I think it has more to do with giving a new passing game to a group of inexperienced receivers. It would have been easier to pick up for a more veteran group. But I thought they did a great job at this camp.
"The receivers were more in tune with what they were doing. Their consistency on their routes was better, which enabled the quarterback to trust them and anticipate it," Bratkowski said. "He was more comfortable because the receivers were more comfortable with what they were doing and they were way ahead of where they had been."
Examples? Johnson, who spent his rookie season trying to beat blitzes with his speed by simply running down field, caught Bratkowski's eye last week by running the right "hot," reads against the blitz and breaking off the pattern in time for the quarterback to hit him quickly.
Johnson felt comfortable literally from minicamp's first snap. He ran the first route, a curl pattern in which he negotiated the linebacker.
"Last year when I saw I was going against the linebacker," Johnson said, "I probably would have tried the wrong thing in trying to get away from him. This time, I went behind him and around and it was because I wasn't reacting, I was just able to do it without thinking."
Bratkowski has emphasized how important it is for the offensive players to participate in the voluntarys, and except for another absence from Scott, he has been pleased with the unit's near 100-percent attendance.
Bratkowski fumed about Scott not showing up last year even though he wasn't cleared to practice as he recovered from a broken left leg. He wanted Scott in on the meetings, like he does now as Scott rests the same leg that has come up sore.
Bratkowski said even though Scott was in his eighth season last year, he had an inexplicable stint in which he made his share of mistakes.
("Scott) made as many mistakes as other people last year," Bratkowski said. "He needs to be here right now as part of the team and be like everybody else and sit in the meetings. All the things he should be doing. Once again, he's put himself behind the eight ball, mentally. He's not going to be caught up where every body else is.
"Nobody's job is etched in stone," Bratkowski said. "We think Darnay is a great player, but if he makes mistakes and we're not functioning well out there, you would hope one of the younger guys will be able to perform and not make mistakes."
That could be said for the rest of the players in a system that is no longer new and provides no more first-year excuses.