Rackers apparently the heir

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals change kickers about once every solar eclipse. But when the lights went out on Doug Pelfrey today, he retained the sunny disposition that made him one of the most popular athletes in Cincinnati history.

How many guys call a news conference when they get cut?

Then again, how many guys who just got a new job like the one rookie Neil Rackers got with Pelfrey's demise feel bad because, in the end, Pelfrey helped him take his job by making him feel at home?

Rackers, who never had a chance to make a game-winning kick at the University of Illinois, hopes he fits the mold. Since that first Super Bowl season of 1981, the Bengals have only played eight games in which Jim Breech or Pelfrey wasn't the kicker.

Pelfrey thanked the Brown family for the chance to kick in the NFL and said he had lived a dream for the past seven seasons, recalling the moments he saw Joe Montanta take a lap around the stadium and Barry Sanders almost take him out on the sideline.

And Bengals President Mike Brown said while he expects Pelfrey to hook on with another team, he wouldn't rule out calling Pelfrey again. Brown recalled calling on Breech again four games after cutting him in 1989.

But Pelfrey also let it be known he didn't think there was a true competition because the Bengals didn't allow him to share the kickoff duties with Rackers and punter Brad Costello this preseason even though he won one of the three training camp derbies. In fact, Pelfrey said he figured, "I was toast," when the Bengals picked Rackers in the sixth round of last April's NFL Draft.

"Doug did improve on his kickoffs," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals' director of pro/college personnel. "But the other two guys were so superior that there was no doubt it was between them and we wanted them to get the work."

Bengals President Mike Brown called it a tough day because the team knew it was losing "one of the best people we've ever had around here." He also said Rackers was, "just as accurate, stronger, longer and quicker to the ball," than Pelfrey.

Pelfrey saw the writing on the wall. Today he signed his name.

"I'm sad, but I'm happy," said Pelfrey in front of the lights at Paul Brown Stadium. "In all honesty, I would love to sit up here and slam everybody, but I had too good of a career to do that. I've enjoyed every minute of it. Meeting all of you. I'll miss the occurences in the locker room. Hopefully I'll get a chance to go somewhere else. I hope my phone rings."

Pelfrey's agent, Mark Rodgers, made the phones of other NFL teams ring today. He touched base with a few clubs, with Washington, Dallas and Carolina believed to be among them. Pelfrey said tonight teams are in a wait-and-see mode. Waiting to see what happens the last week of preseason.

The one guy who could identify with Pelfrey today was Breech, the team's all-time leading scorer. He advised him the call will come. But maybe not right away.

"Typically it takes a few weeks into the season," said Breech, cut twice before embarking on a Bengals career that puts him 16th on the NFL's all-time scoring list. "Guys get hurt, or guys struggle and a veteran begins to look very good. I know how he feels. It doesn't feel very good to be told you're not good enough."

It was Pelfrey who didn't make Breech feel good back in 1993, when the eighth-round pick out of the University of Kentucky dethroned the Bengals' popular Super Bowl kicker. After his first four seasons, Pelfrey proved to be a worthy successor with six game-winning kicks, two final-gun field goals on back-to-back Christmas Eves that brightened dismal seasons, and the title of the NFL's all-time accuracy leader.

Then he played 1997 with torn knee cartilage, saw the release late in 1998 of punter Lee Johnson - the only holder he ever had - and in 1999 watched long snapper Greg Truitt blow out his knee in a preseason game.

Pelfrey, a devout Christian, said he knows it's all in God's hands and wondered with a smile if God was a Bengals' fan today. Given the nomadic life of an NFL kicker, Pelfrey, the Northern Kentucky native who turns 30 next month, was asked if he would ever return to his hometown team. He'll continue to live here in the offseason, where he'll oversee his Kicks for Kids charity that made him a local icon.

"Hopefully I'll be employed by somebody else with a five-year contract," Pelfrey said.

Rackers, who turned 24 last week, believes he's ready. He signed a deal last month that gives him an extra $21,000 if he scores at least 110 points.

"If you had asked me coming into this camp, yeah, I would have been semi-surprised about making it," Rackers said. "But I felt like I had a good camp. My leg strength is a big plus for me. I want to be happy, but it's hard to see a guy that helped me so much go. In competitions in high school and college, people tend to hold grudges, or not be very nice to you. That just wasn't the case with Doug. He's a true professional. He's everything you could ask for in a competitor. He made me feel comfortable when it wasn't his job to do so."

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It wasn't Pelfrey's fault, but the blocked 29-yard field goal on the last play of the 21-20 loss in the preseason opener at Buffalo reinforced the club's thinking his approach to the ball was too slow. It was his longest attempt of his four pre-season tries.

"I don't think it would have made a difference," said Pelfrey, when asked what would have happened if he had gotten a shot at the 47- and 41-yarders Rackers hit in Atlanta.

But Pelfrey thinks he's a different kicker than the one who's been here the past three years. Today, he didn't back away from the factors he believes caused his numbers to decline.

"The last three seasons haven't been fun years," said Pelfrey. Particularly last season when, it was 'Ring Around the Rosie,' as far as snappers and holders. I tried to put the last three years behind me. In just the last several weeks I realized what was missing. Ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted the game to come down (to me.) The last three years, I was kind of wishing everything away."

Breech was there. He knows how a change in holders can be devastating. In quarterback Ken Anderson's last season in 1986, the Bengals had him hold for the first time in his 16 seasons and Breech had his worst season ever when he was just 17 of 32 on field goals.

"It's hard to kick when you don't know where the ball is going to be," Breech said. "I think Brad and Doug came in for some unfair criticism and it all came to a head last year. It's tough when all of a sudden you don't have a Steve Kreider or a Lee Johnson there holding."

Lippincott thinks the erratic holding and snapping might have impacted Pelfrey's mechanics last year, but he thought he was fighting through it the last few months.

"I thought he was kicking good back in the May minicamp," Lippincott said. "He was making that good sound. He was starting to look like the Doug of old. But there was absolutely no question Rackers beat him out."

But there are concerns about the consistency of Rackers' kickoffs after he sliced a few Saturday. Lippincott says he'll have to "control his emotions," and that's an issue because he didn't get much of a chance to kick pressure field goals in college. The closest he came was a 36-yarder against Indiana in OT, but the Hoosiers scored a touchdown on the next play.

What happens when it's 24-24 with four minutes left and he's lining up a 48-yarder?

"I like to think I'll make that kick nine out of ten times," Rackers said.

As special teams coach Al Roberts said, "It's like Michael Jordan making the last shot, or Wayne Gretzky taking the last shot. You don't know. It takes a young kicker six months to a year to get settled. That's why we (cut Pelfrey now) because we've got (Friday's) game and two weeks after that to get ready for the season and that should help."

Pelfrey also has concerns. About finding work because it's so late in the preseason and because, "the majority of teams don't think I can kick off. And when I did kick off (in practice), I was squibbing it or bloopping it. . .I've got a kick-off leg, but I haven't been able to use it."

Breech is a fellow Christian, so he knows Pelfrey is thinking this ending can lead to an extraordinary beginning. He was right.

"I haven't done a lot of things in this league: play on Monday night, go to the playoffs, go to the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl and I think I can still do those things," Pelfrey said. "But I won't hang up (the phone) if it's not a contender."

Pelfrey was more reflective than anything.

"The best part," he said, "was meeting guys like Jim Breech, Lee Johnson, Anthony Munoz and finding out they were as great (as they seemed)."

Which is exactly what Neil Rackers was thinking about Doug Pelfrey today.

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