BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals rookie kicker Neil Rackers and his holder, punter Daniel Pope, were visibly frustrated after Sunday's 24-13 victory over the Cardinals.
Rackers had just nailed the first clinching field goal of his career, a 32-yarder with 62 seconds left that cemented the victory.
But he was still thinking about the tries he missed from 36 and 45 as he struggled with the loose Paul Brown Stadium turf.
"It's a crapshoot on this field," Rackers said. "You follow through on your principles, do what you're supposed to do, and you end up reaching for the ball, or you're too close because you're just trying to find a solid piece of ground."
But like Pope said, "No one is to blame, it's just the way it is."
There are several reasons why the grass is torn up in the Bengals' new facility:
_The game field is supposed to be bluegrass, which is what is on the Bengals' practice fields outside the stadium.
But a drought killed the field while it was growing in Baltimore during the summer and the Bengals had to go to a temporary Bermuda grass field, which is more delicate.
_The temporary field's growth was hampered by a cool summer and late installation date because of construction delays.
_The field has undergone heavy traffic since the first open house attracted more than 100,000 people back in August. One prep game was played at PBS in September. The field also had a tough time recovering from 31 Pee Wee football games the weekend of Nov. 10-12.
"For a professional stadium and brand-new stadium, I'm very surprised," said Arizona cornerback Aeneas Williams, whose feet went out from under him after his interception. "It was like the whole ground came up. That was the first time I ever experienced something like that. . .The conditions weren't very good at all."
But there were reasons, and they played on the same field. The Bengals dealt with similar conditions in Baltimore's new stadium last year.
Arizona kicker Cary Blanchard said PBS was the worst field he'd ever worked on in nine NFL seasons after hitting the right upright from 31 yards away, and blowing an extra point.
"He was just doing what he always does and he sunk down about eight inches in the ground," Rackers said. "That's what happened out there and he kicks the ground."
Rackers pointed out that some of the finest kickers in the league have missed easy ones here this year. Detroit's Jason Hanson was 0-for-2 way back in August, and Denver's Jason Elam was 0-for-2 in October. Tennessee's Al Del Greco missed from 33 after coaxing through a 22-yarder that hit an upright.
"There isn't too much you can do with this field," Rackers said. "It seems like it's headed to a lost cause. You can stomp on the spot before the kick, but you run the chance of not stepping exactly right in the spot. When you did plant today, the front of your foot was buried and my heel was pointed up because it just sank."
All told at PBS this season, opposing kickers are 9-for-13, while Rackers is 5-for-10 for a total of 14-for-23 in Cincinnati. The average coming into the game for all NFL teams kicking field goals was 18-for-23.
One of the oddest sights of this or any other season had to be Bengals quarterback Scott Mitchell and some offensive linemen feverishly trying to do a bit of greenskeeping for the last field-goal try.
"It turned out that was our best spot all day," Pope said.
Told he should be near perfect on the bluegrass next year, Rackers said, "Check my percentage out there on the practice field. It's got to be close to 90 percent."
MITCHELL IMPRESSING : Quarterback Scott Mitchell is rapidly winning the confidence of his teammates after raising his starting record to 1-1. Right tackle Willie Anderson noticed Mitchell kept playing after taking some shots on the blitz with the sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
"Don't think guys don't recognize that," Anderson said. "Guys see that hopping back up. He's being a competitor. Guys see that fire in his eyes. That's what you need out of that position. I thought the biggest thing he did today was firing up guys in the huddle. I like to keep them motivated, but it looks better when it comes from the quarterback out there. He does things well enough for us to score and that gives us confidence."
The Bengals are averaging 18.5 points per game in Mitchell's two starts, 11 in Akili Smith's 11.
Third down is the quarterback's down and that's where Mitchell picked up 57 of his 109 passing yards. He was 6-for-11 on third down with all the completions going for first downs.
Especially key were two ice-cold third-down throws to tight end Tony McGee and rookie receiver Peter Warrick on the last drive.
Mitchell's bootleg play-action to McGee over the middle netted 16 on third-and-6, and Mitchell hit Warrick for nine out of the shotgun on third-and-seven.
``That's indicative of what we're trying to do," said Mitchell of the last drive. "We could have
run three plays and said, `OK, defense, hold 'em.' We made a lot of key
plays, put some points on the board and sewed up the ballgame.'
``It was a big win for us. It was a good, solid game.," Mitchell said. "We talked about
finishing the season and finishing the right way, and that game was a good
indication of where we are mentally. Guys kept fighting through the whole
thing. We didn't get shellshocked when things started evening up at the end
of the game. We were able to finish it off."
Even though Mitchell finished with just 109 yards, McGee tipped his hat to him.
"Scott did a good job of delivering the ball when he had to," McGee said. "l think we only had two plays on third down where guys didn't hold on to the ball. How many yards did we pass for? Well, when you rush for 292 and you get 100 passing, that's close to 400 yards and you can't ask for anything more than that.
"Scott played well," McGee said. "The way he ran the tempo. They wore down a little bit."
Mitchell, a free agent next season, says he's thinking of only the next game in Tennessee. But he told Fox TV this weekend what he's been telling the Cincinnati media. If the Bengals offered him a contract, he'd be delighted about the prospect of returning. **
VERSATILE DILLON:** If you don't think Corey Dillon is a leader on this club, you better check with Rackers. Before Rackers went on the field for the clinching field goal. Dillon didn't sit on his 216 yards. He went up to Rackers and told him to forget the two earlier misses.
"I told him, 'If you make this one, everybody's going to forget the other two,'" Dillon said. " 'If you want to be the hero, you go out and make this one.' And sure enough, he did.
"But to come back from those mistakes and hit a crucial field goal, to really seal the deal is something special," Dillon said. "I've got a lot of confidence in him."
Rackers stopped by Dillon's locker for a hug and handshake and to say thanks.
"See, you're the hero," Dillon told him.
CARTER RESPONDS: Veteran cornerback Tom Carter, benched in favor of rookie Robert Bean two weeks ago, got two reprieves against the Cardinals.
After Arizona receiver David Boston beat Bean for a 15-yard touchdown pass with 13:45 left in the game, Carter replaced him as the Bengals tried to stop Boston's career day of nine catches for 184 yards.
On his first series, Carter picked up his 11th interference or holding penalty this season when he was called for hand checking Boston down the right sideline on a third-and-two.
It was a huge 17-yard penalty and gave Arizona the ball on the Bengals 35 with Cincinnati protecting a 21-13 lead.
"That was a marginal call," said Bengals coach Dick LeBeau. "You have to go for the ball in that situation and I thought he did."
But Carter's world changed in the next 93 seconds. Like he did in the Bengals last win on Oct. 29 in Cleveland, Carter intercepted a pass to help seal it when Arizona quarterback Jake Plummer tried to find Boston in a zone defense at the Cincinnati 7.
"Welcome to our world," said Carter of the ups and downs of an NFL cornerback. "We were just chicken fighting on the penalty and that happens all the time.
"I was in a deep-short zone on the interception, and I was just trying to read the quarterback," Carter said.
Fellow cornerback Rodney Heath said Carter did more than that: "He baited him and (Plummer) threw it right at him. He gave him one."
Plummer had a big 278-yard passing day, and Heath admitted it was tough covering receivers on the loose turf. Especially when the Bengals were playing off after building a 21-0 lead.
"It's hard to break on that stuff," Heath said. "You're trying to react and you feel like you're in sand. We just came off them because we knew they were trying to go down field and we were trying not to give up the big play."
Still, the Bengals allowed Boston three catches of at least 33 yards once the score was 21-0.
INJURY UPDATE:** Bean probably gets another shot because Heath is doubtful with a slightly separated shoulder. . . DE Vaughn Booker, fighting knee problems all year, may be done for the season with a ticket for arthroscopic knee surgery. He's doubtful. . .RT Willie Anderson hung in the game despite straining his back and ankle tendons. He's probable.