7-30-03, 6:25 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ This summer is like no other for Neil Rackers.
First things first. There is his first born, a son that has changed everything.
Then there are the well-wishers as he comes off the field waving pens instead of crude insults. There is the new regimen that celebrates special teams instead of tolerates them, and a coach named Darrin Simmons who uttered the golden words "rip the ball as far as you can down the field," when he kicks off. There is no popular veteran (Doug Pelfrey), or experienced journeyman (Richie Cunningham) or hot-shot draft pick (Travis Dorsch) to challenge his job on the roster.
"It's a big responsibility," Rackers said of fatherhood. "I've grown up a lot since last year."
And, of course, there are THE STREAKS. Since Dec. 2, 2001, Rackers has made 82 percent of his field-goal tries. 23-for-28. Since Dec. 30, 2001, he hasn't missed from less than 45 yards in, a skein of 18 straight. Last year, he made 12 of his last 13 tries. And here Wednesday morning at Georgetown College, he ripped off 14 of 14 between about 21 and 39 yards.
"I feel really good about it. I feel Coach Simmons is very knowledgeable about different aspects of special teams that weren't emphasized," Rackers said on his way to dinner one day this week. "Or, possibly not given the time in the past. Now there is much more time devoted to the special teams. He's got everyone's attention. We don't have people missing meetings or people walking in late to meetings. It's really going to make a difference."
Yes, this is Rackers talking to the media. He didn't do it last year and he may not do it once training camp is over and who can argue? He's coming off the best season of his three-year career, hitting 15 of 18 tries and falling one short of the Bengals' record of 13 straight when he missed a 52-yarder at Carolina.
"It's the type of thing if I'm not going to talk after the bad games, I don't think I should just talk after the good games," said Rackers, who pretty much made the decision in an effort to narrow his focus to only kicking.
If it sounds reasonable, it probably is considering his first two tumultuous seasons in the NFL, when he made just 59 percent of his kicks as he dealt with a balky grass home field and an unforgiving public. One particularly ugly scene in a local restaurant in which he ended up defending his wife landed him in court and summed up how nasty the situations can get in Talk Show America when it all goes wrong.
Never mind that he is one of the most giving Bengals in the community and also one of the most quiet about it even in the toughest times. Most Tuesdays, an off day during the season, he would stop by the locker room and pick up some gear from equipment managers Rob Recker and Jeff Brickner and go visit Children's Hospital.
"I met a lot of the negativity my first couple of years and maybe rightfully so," Rackers said. "You make kicks, people like you. When you don't make kicks, people don't like you."
Rackers has made them lately, but he's got a long memory. He also has some perspective on it that he didn't have a few years ago. After he ambled in and out of a fans' orange-soaked Bengals' Bus to autograph the inside and shook hands all around Wednesday, he smiled.
"I enjoy that," he said. "Ninety percent of the people who come out here are great and all for you. I think that's probably just the way it is. Ninety percent of them are fine. These are good people down here. They're very supportive I know a lot of them."
Rackers is still getting to know Simmons and feel him out, and so far the relationship has been fine. Simmons, who watches more tape than MGM, noticed last year that Rackers never had any rhyme or reason in his pre-kick ritual.
"You have to do the same thing all the time. You have to be consistent no matter if it's an extra point or a 55-yarder," Simmons said. "Accuracy comes from alignment and walk off and not guiding the ball in. Last year, he didn't do the same thing twice. He changed things up all the time. His walk off on field goals was not really detailed. He was always different, and that means he was a different distance from the ball all the time. No two hits were exactly the same. These guys are ultimately judged on their ability to perform under pressure consistently."
One Bengals' insider observed that it appears Rackers, "seems to have about all the jitters out of him." For three years, coaches and players tried to soothe the high-strung Rackers' emotions, but it seems time has done it.
"I think that's true," said long snapper Brad St. Louis, who came into the league with Rackers in 2000. "He doesn't let surroundings or a bad kick bother him. Maybe he just realizes it's not worth worrying about and he lets his talent take over."
Take early this week. Rackers wobbled badly, missing three out of four. But he was also trying to adjust to a snap-hold-kick operation that hadn't been done in six weeks, as well as the presence of a new college free agent rookie in long snapper Noah Happe.
On Wednesday, he was in the groove as he finds himself competing against. . .himself for the first time in four camps.
"Who ever I competed against, I always took some thing away from them and learned something else," Rackers said. "They all made me better. I have to realize I'm competing against myself rather than letting someone else provide it. You have to deal with fatigue a little bit because you're taking all the kicks. But it's a good deal. I get more time with Coach Simmons."
On kickoffs, Rackers is no longer asked to drill it in a line on one kick, kick it high and short on another, or whatever the idea is for the moment. That was one of the factors that led to the Bengals' defense being put in one of the NFL's worst averages for starting a drive. Simmons again stressed consistency.
"We're going to do what every other team in the league does," Simmons said. "We're going to kick the ball deep. We've got 10 guys out there. They're here to cover kicks. Just like his job is to kick, their job is to cover the kick. They feed off what he gets. We're only as good as he his kicks. They're only as good as what he can give them. We have to give these guys a chance to make plays."
It's a breath of fresh air for Rackers, who had touchbacks on 57 percent of his kickoffs at Illinois his senior year.
"We're going to be aggressive, we're going to put pressure on the other team," Rackers said. "It's great because we're going to be attacking."
Rackers can attack free agency after the season. He did take a visit to Seattle this offseason as a restricted free agent, but odds are always long for a club doing a deal like that for a kicker. You would think Rackers might be eying the market given his past experiences in town, but not so fast.
"Cincinnati is the team that gave me my chance," he said. "If you go out there and make them, somebody is going to want you."
Rackers may make some changes this season. He said he has gotten away from the hospital visits because of the focus issue, but he plans to pick it up again this season.
"He's a guy you can always count on doing that type of thing and he does it quietly and shows up when he says he will," said Eric Ball, the club's director of player relations. "And I've seen him help out kickers at local high schools and go to (youth) clubs. The guy is good about stuff like that."
It may be a sad reality, but despite all that, they still only like you if you make it.
It's just that now, in the 27th summer of his life, Rackers understands it.