BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ The Bengals kicking competition may be up in the air, but rookie Neil Rackers is well grounded when it comes to confidence.
His Missouri license plate says "GOOD-FOR-3." He wears a chain around his neck that dangles with his No. 5, a gift from his mother after the Bengals drafted him in the sixth round. While kicking off for Illinois, he once recovered his own onside kick and another time forced a fumble.
"I'm confident, but I'm not overconfident," said Rackers before today's practice here at Georgetown College. "Am I satisfied with what I've done so far? At some points yes and at some points no. I'm not real satisfied with my kickoffs."
The Bengals aren't saying how much satisfaction they are getting from Rackers or popular veteran Doug Pelfrey. They will probably let them go at it in the next two preseason games before making the call and letting the winner get settled in the preseason finale.
But there are few clues on who has the inside track. Not since Pelfrey has been pretty much taken off the hook for his 29-yard field goal attempt that got blocked on the final play of last Friday's pre-season opener.
Still, there was another blip on the chart during today's competition, which Rackers commanded.
"Rackers was longer, more accurate and faster," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel. "Doug was accurate, but slower. Doug's trying to find that magic he had here a couple of years ago and when he does, he'll be fine. The first day we did it, it was the other way around. Doug was near 100 percent and Neil was trying to hit it so hard that he kept pulling it left. Doug was dominant that day. It varies from day-to-day."
What doesn't vary is the strength of Rackers' leg. Pat Leahy, the long-time New York Jet kicker who is the NFL's eighth all-time leading scorer, just happened to wander into Rackers' first varsity game at Aquinas-Mercy High School in Florissant, Mo. Leahy was a family friend of one of Rackers' friends on the dance team and he's been helping Rackers ever since. It just so happens Al Roberts, the Bengals' special teams coach, coached Leahy in New York.
"Leahy had an efficient leg, not a thunderous leg," Roberts said. "This kid has nice thunder in his leg. Nice sound. Whether he can get by Pelfrey or not, we don't know."
What appears to give Rackers the edge is his kickoff ability. Pelfrey would like to show his improved kickoff skills, but they let Rackers and punter Brad Costello do the honors against the Bills. After slicing the game's opening kickoff to the Buffalo 8, Rackers' next two went to the Bills' 5- and 4-yard lines.
"On the first one the wind was at my back and I just tried to kill it," Rackers said. "I can hit the ball better than that, but I still got underneath those. But I hit them solid and I'm a lot more relaxed."
The big question, of course, is if Rackers can drill a 48-yard field goal with 2:57 left in a 21-21 game. He says he never had a chance to win a college game with a field goal and admitted, "I was kind of foaming at the mouth for that one," when Pelfrey went on the field with four seconds left last Friday. It could have been Rackers, but they were alternating field goals and point-after-attempts and it was Pelfrey's turn. Roberts indicated since nothing changed on Friday, Pelfrey will kick first this week in Atlanta.
"I'm very confident I can do that," Rackers said of kicking winners. "Since my freshman year to my senior year, I've come a long way and I'm looking at continuing it."
As a sophomore, Rackers made 5 of 10. As a senior, it was 20 of 25, including 9 of 12 from 40 and beyond. He hit a 55-yarder last week and Lippincott said Rackers hit one at least as long during today's workout.
Roberts is calling the competition tight and close. All he can say is, "If Pelfrey loses his job, we want Rackers to have to earn it. And we're looking at everything, not just games."
DILLON, ROMAN HOT TOPIC: **The Bengals spent tonight on the phone with the agents for Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon and second-round pick Mark Roman. But the club refused to comment on the negotiations with two of the last five holdouts in the NFL. They need to get a deal with Dillon by Thursday or else he's ineligible for the first regular-season game. The club is trying to hammer out an incentive package with Roman that gives him a non-voidable years deal that brings him to the estimated $800,000 annual average of the players drafted around him. The Bengals are looking at a yearly incentive. Roman wants to hit the incentive once in his rookie year.
The Bengals have a pad under the salary cap, but they feel it will go fast once they sign Dillon and Roman and the incentives for Akili Smith and Peter Warrick kick in. Plus, they're holding room for the impact of injuries (one example is the $472,000 they will probably pay James Hundon now that Darnay Scott's $3 million is out for the year) and possible injury grievances.
BASNIGHT WATCHING: Running back Michael Basnight, who had a good chance at winning the starting job until he broke the navicular bone in his right wrist in the July 29 scrimmage, figures the comeback will make for a good sequel. Basnight's collection of poems "Deeper Than The Game" is about to be published and he said, "It's just another added dimension. I'm used to overcoming adversity. It will be good for the next (book)."
Those who saw Basnight carrying a tray of food after the scrimmage in the Georgetown College cafeteria here were shocked to hear of his injury. So was Basnight, who woke up the next morning in pain. The injury came on his first carry of the day, when middle linebacker Brian Simmons and a host of defenders wrestled him to the ground and fell on top of him, bending his wrist inward.
"It was just a little stiff," Basnight said. "I thought I had a stinger. I played the whole scrimmage with it."
Team doctor Rob Heidt Jr., and the club's medical staff is being cautious about giving a date on Basnight's return. A recent study puts the average return for this kind of injury at 5.9 weeks, which makes playing in the Sept. 10 regular-season opener possible. But the club is holding to eight weeks at the earliest because if he came back early he'd have to play in a cast. Basnight said his doctor was encouraged about the strength of his bones.
"He said it's so strong that he broke five screws trying to get one in," Basnight said. "He said it's up to me and my body to see how fast I can recover. Mentally I'm fine. Physically, it hurt like hell. But like I always say, it's not where you start, but where you finish."
* INJURY UPDATE:* WR Ron Dugans (hamstring) has been downgraded to questionable for Friday's game. . .LB Canute Curtis (groin) has also been downgraded to questionable. . .TE Damian Vaughn (Achilles) is questionable.