11-18-01, 9:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
It turned out the most valuable thing Bengals kicker Neil Rackers did Sunday came at the end of a streak.
Unfortunately, the streak belonged to a fan who dropped his cell phone at about the 35-yard line while he disrobed as he sprinted on the field in the waning moments of the Bengals' 20-7 loss to the Titans.
Rackers alerted Paul Brown Stadium security of the cell in the grass and play mercifully continued. But it might have been a different game if head coach Dick LeBeau had called on Rackers to try field goals from 49, 49 and 46 yards in the first half.
Instead, the Bengals tried two punts and a failed fourth-and-one running play. He got no points out of what turned out to be the last drives past the 50 until the game's last series.
"It was field position," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "That's Coach's strategy. I look at it as opportunities we had and we didn't capitalize on them. I can't say, 'What if we had gone for this?' . . .I'm speaking for the offense. (We had) chances to punch the ball in the end zone, or get the first down, or do this right here."
But could a 10-7 Titans lead at the half been a 16-10 Bengals lead?
"If someone had been kind enough to tell me we wouldn't get back down there again to kick a field goal," LeBeau said, "I probably would have gone ahead and kicked a field goal there."
Still, Rackers was in the middle of it all. He hit the opening kickoff into the end zone, but the low line drive allowed Derrick Mason to start his 101-yard touchdown return. Rackers had a shot at him, but he
bounced off Mason. Seconds later, Titans kicker Joe Nedney tripped up Curtis Keaton at midfield on the ensuing kickoff.
But it was the things Rackers didn't do Sunday that became the story. The last time Rackers tried a field goal, he hit a career-long 52-yarder in Jacksonville last week. In the same game, he hit a 27-yarder to stem a 4-for-11 slide that forced the Bengals to sign a kicker to the practice squad.
At Sunday's halftime, Rackers told LeBeau that if his kicker was the reason for the decisions, not to worry and informed LeBeau he had hit the ball well in pregame.
As if to prove his point, Rackers went out at halftime and, sideline observers said, nailed at least three from 60 yards as the crowd roared.
"I figured we might get another long opportunity because we were just down by three points," Rackers said. "I thought we might get a field goal, they might need me to get up and crank one for us. So if I hit them from there, I know they're going in (from closer)."
The Bengals said the decisions didn't take gas out of them as they went to halftime with just seven points.
Asked if passing up the field goals deflated the team, linebacker Takeo Spikes gave an emphatic negative and quarterback Jon Kitna said it didn't crush him.
"I'm trying to score a touchdown," said Kitna of his thoughts when he reached the Titans 32. "When you get to the 30, I feel like, 'OK, we put ourselves in range.' But Coach has been very, very clear all year. When we're around the 30, sometimes he's going to take a chance and go for it and try to get a first down so we can get a first down."
Rackers actually lined up on the first 49-yard chance on the Bengals first series, but faked the field goal and hit a punt that rolled into the end zone.
"We knew they wouldn't put anyone back to field the kick, so we thought we would have a good opportunity to pin them deep. I think the logic was all right, we just got a bad bounce on the ball," LeBeau said.
"We were one touchdown behind at the time and I thought we would play their offense well and I wanted to keep them back in their own territory. . .The ball took a crazy bounce or else it goes out of bounds at the two- or three-yard line."
On the next 49-yard chance early in the second quarter and the Bengals trailing, 10-7, LeBeau opted to punt and did pin the Titans on their own 9 and got a three-and-out when safety Cory Hall and tackle Oliver Gibson stuffed Titans running back Eddie George on third-and-1.
But Craig Hentrich's 56-yard punt drove the Bengals' Peter Warrick back to his 26-yard line and rookie receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh got called for an illegal block above the waist to push the Bengals back to their own 18.
Then with 3:09 left in the first half, LeBeau went looking for a go-ahead touchdown, but running back Corey Dillon lost a yard on fourth-and-one from the Tennessee 29.
"If you go by the league averages," LeBeau said. "the farther you are from the goal posts, the lower the chance of making the kick. I thought that early in the game, it would be a field position game, and in reality that is what it turned out to be. We got our share of turnovers and didn't get any points from them. I was playing for field position early in the game because I thought it would be a hard-fought game and that's what it was."
Kitna raised the possibility that the lumpy conditions in the middle of the field factored in the decisons, but he alo said a 49-yarder isn't a chip shot anywhere.
"That's a long kick," Kitna said. "We had an opportunitity to get first downs a couple of times."
The PBS ground crew began taking up the middle of field right after the game so it can get re-sodded, but Rackers said the field didn't bother him.
"Nedney didn't like it," Rackers said. "But I told him this is beautiful compared to last season because you can stand up. It wasn't that bad."