Punting duel at high noon

8-25-03, 3:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

No matter what happens next week when the Bengals make their final cut to 53 players, Travis Dorsch figures he has performed well enough to earn a punting job in the NFL.

It just sounds like he doesn't think it's going to be in Cincinnati and that Nick Harris has the job even before Friday night's pre-season finale in Indianapolis.

"To tell you the truth, their mind might already be made up," Dorsch said before Monday's practice at Paul Brown Stadium. "But it's not my job to worry about what the coaches and front office are doing. My job is to kick the football far and high. At this point, I'm playing for an audience that's bigger than this."

There is speculation that the Bengals are already approaching players about the possibility of being on the practice squad. But that wouldn't indicate that the club has decided not to put Dorsch or those others players on the 53, because that's pretty much a business formality, and the Bengals know if they cut a Dorsch or a Sean Brewer with practice squad eligibility, they most likely won't clear waivers to join their practice squad.

Indeed, if a player didn't get cut Monday, like seven did, it's because they still seem to be in the mix. Dorsch has yet to hold for kicks in a game, but he admits, "I don't wonder anymore about what goes on. I just keep my mouth shut," and he still thinks there seems to be a shot.

"The one thing I wanted to do this year is prove that I can punt in this league and I think I've done that," Dorsch said. "I'm not a big stat guy. It's about what the team can do to win games. But in the preseason, when you're trying to earn a job, it comes down to stats. Marvin has said that in his press conferences, and I feel like I've done what they've asked me to do. If that's enough to win the job, then I feel like I've earned it. If not, then I feel like I've earned a spot somewhere else in the league.

The stats speak. Harris and Dorsch have each punted five times in the preseason. Harris for a 36.4-yard average, Dorsch for 47.8. In his last two games, Dorsch has shown why the Bengals are in a dilemma over his lack of consistency and ability to tip field position. With the wind, he sailed a punt of 58 yards against the Lions, and then came back last Saturday night to hit a 52-yarder against Tennessee.

Harris says Dorsch, "has definitely improved from where he was at this time last year. That's why we needed one more week to figure this whole thing out." But thanks to the arrival of new special teams coach Darrin Simmons, Harris believes he's also a better punter now than the one that averaged 40.1 yards per punt in each of his two seasons here. That also included one block in each year.

See the quandary? You can write in a growing young kicker like Harris for at least 40.1 yards per kick. But can he kick you out of trouble and tip the field like Dorsch? Or will Dorsch also get you in trouble with the short ones he spreads through his bombs?

"I've improved in everything, but the thing that is most apparent is the length of time from snap to kick," Harris said. "It's an area we never really addressed. We just kind of let it be mediocre and teams came after us. They tired to block punts, and they have twice. That's improved and my consistency is a lot better. My distance is, I think everything is better."

Both have the great pedigrees. Both were drafted in the heady waters of the fourth round for a kicker. Harris came out of California as the NCAA's all-time leading punter. Dorsch is the only guy to be the All-Big Ten punter and kicker in the same season. He's not the same guy who drilled two liners that were returned for touchdowns last year in his NFL debut in Carolina. What the Bengals have to figure out is if they can afford to wait for Dorsch and his consistency.

"I've done what I can do," Dorsch said.

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