Rackers hopes to follow through

8-19-01, 2:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ It wasn't exactly like the scene out of "The Natural," with the Lady in White guiding a Roy Hobbs homer.

But it was the Lady in Orange who helped beckon the Bengals' first win of the preseason last week in Detroit on Neil Rackers' 34-yard field goal at the gun.

"Or maybe she was wearing pink, I'm not sure now," Rackers said. "But that's what I was aiming for. We've been concentrating on aiming right through the follow through and that's what I picked out. We started doing that at the end of last year and it's been a big help."

At one end of PBS, the follow-through point is one of the first few letters in a "Budweiser," sign. In Detroit, it was the Lady sitting behind and above the Silverdome goal posts, which is where Rackers kicked the winning field goal. As well as most of his others this training camp. Enough that the kicker's job looks to be his to lose when the Bengals play the Bills Saturday in their third pre-season game of the year.

Last year, the Bengals installed Rackers after the third pre-season game when they cut eight-year veteran Doug Pelfrey.

Another solid outing ought to lock up a spot for Rackers, and Richie Cunningham is making sure he better have that solid game as the former Pro Bowler tenaciously shows he still belongs in the league.

Like Rackers, Cunningham hit a field goal at the end of a half in Detroit. Like Rackers, Cunningham kicked a field goal in the opener in Chicago. Like Rackers, Cunningham has hit a key kick late in the game. His extra point tied the opener at 13 with 1:52 left in regulation. Their kickoffs have been about even.

But the unwritten rule is the incumbent kicker has to be knocked out, just not beaten. And Rackers is showing he has chosen to use the missteps of his brutal rookie year to improve himself rather than flog himself.

When head coach Dick LeBeau invited Bengals alumni to dinner last week at training camp, Rackers found himself in a 45-minute talk with Jim Breech, the franchise's all-time leading scorer and two-time Super Bowl kicker.

Rackers felt good enough about things to ask Breech if

he would come down to the stadium to watch film and help him work on occasion. Breech, who was always there for his successor, Pelfrey, readily accepted.

"A great guy," said Rackers, who agreed last year was a bit awkward with Breech because of his close association with Pelfrey.

"I had dinner with Jim and we had a great talk," Rackers said. "The circumstances were different this year. He and Pelfrey worked together a lot and I just kind of left it alone. Now, I feel like it's an opportunity to learn a lot from a guy who obviously did it for a long time."

Rackers looks to have the edge because of his big foot. Breech told him he is impressed with Rackers' "leg whip and body swing," and had a few pointers on positioning his upper body.

"He said the thing for me is my chest placement and that it's fine even with the ball," Rackers said. "If I'm going a little forward, I'm going to push it. If I'm going a little back, I'm going to pull it. That's why things were going a little left last year. Because when I was trying to get good footing, I was leaning back."

Footing shouldn't be the issue it was last year. Isn't it fitting that the two games Rackers can lock up his job come in the stadium that swallowed his rookie year last season?

Rackers missed six of his 11 field-goal tries on Paul Brown Stadium's Bermuda grass that crumbled into moonscape once the Bengals started playing games on the temporary grass that was needed because a drought wiped out the original field.

But now the Bengals have their permanent Bluegrass field in place and a delighted Rackers was 5-for-5 on it back in July before groundskeeper Doug Bradley asked him to leave so he could keep it pristine for this very moment, the Aug. 25 home opener.

"They were saying the roots had already grown seven inches into the ground," Rackers said. "It looks like it's going to be a different place for kickers."

But Rackers is different, too. And it's just not because he's concentrating on the follow-throughs or that the earth no longer moves when he kicks. It's just that he's a year older.

"Like Kim Wood says," said Rackers of the Bengals' long-time strength coach. "I played 10 years last year. So I'm ready for anything. I feel like I've got 10 years of experience."

And, of course, the last Bengals' kicker with 10 years experience was Breech.

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