Reception greets Bengals' return

5-18-04, 6:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

It turned out the only guy in the Bengals wide receivers corps Tuesday that had a limp was new wide receivers coach Hue Jackson.

After stripping off the ice pack that had been wrapped to his ankle for practice, Jackson, who likes to run routes with his receivers, revealed he got a kick out of watching Peter Warrick move even though he couldn't.

A "relieved," Warrick got through an estimated 20 snaps in fine fettle on his surgically-repaired knee as about 80 Bengals gathered at Paul Brown Stadium for the first day of the first series of on-field coaching sessions.

"I told him he was going to be in control of it and he felt pretty good as he got going and I'm pretty sure he got caught up in the excitement of being back out there," Jackson said. "The guy really is a pro. I was more excited watching him take notes in the meeting, get the detail, and then go out and apply it to the practice."

With a healthy Warrick and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, an emerging Kelley Washington, a NFL-proven deep threat in Patrick Johnson, a blossoming special teams ace in Kevin Walter, and the speed-warp Chad Johnson, the wideouts are taking note of their suddenly cozy, competitive surroundings.

"It's probably one of the most formidable in the league top to bottom," said Patrick Johnson, a free-agent pickup from the Redskins who should know because he has played on four receiving corps in the last four seasons.

"This offense allows all the pieces to get involved," Johnson said. "The No. 1 guy should get all his balls, but the No. 2 guy should get all his balls, too. There shouldn't be that much of a drop-off, and this system tries to spread it around."

As he scooted in and out of the slot, Warrick wriggled himself into a nice No. 2 to the field-stretching 90 Pro Bowl catches of Chad Johnson. Before he hurt his knee with two weeks left in last season and had to undergo arthroscopic surgery, Warrick had rung up 75 catches and was easily headed to his first 80-catch season. As it was, he gamely came back nine days after the surgery to play in the must-win season finale. He had four receptions for 25 yards, but his biggest catch was in the locker room where teammates always recognize who is playing hurt.

Still, Warrick thinks he came back too soon and thinks it might have hampered his rehab. He wanted to make sure he didn't come back too early for May workouts, since the first practice of training camp is more than two months away on July 30.

He admitted he was uneasy before he went out there Tuesday ("You know I was,"), but he also made up his mind that if he felt like he could go, he would go 100 percent.

"I probably didn't cut as hard, but as the day went on, I stopped thinking about it," Warrick said. "I just focused on doing what I can do and it was good. I caught a deep pass. It felt good because it was the first time I actually went against a defense and all that."

If Warrick is relieved, then the 6-3, 220-pound Washington is reliving his college days at Tennessee. After making a pretty decent splash as a rookie with 22 catches and four touchdowns, Washington has had people buzzing after his first two workouts of the spring. The Bengals drafted him in the third round because of his combination of size and speed, and it has shown up more consistently, which Washington chalks up to more playing and less thinking.

"A lot of the players and coaches have told me I'm playing looser than last year," Washington said. I'm not thinking as much. I'm just using my athleticism like I did in school. I feel a lot more comfortable."

Last year, when a 20-yard dig route was called, Washington was so concerned about making a play that he didn't think about the depth. But Tuesday, it clicked. He needed that depth to get behind the linebacker and in front of the safety, and when he did, Jackson limped his praise to him from in back of the huddle.

When Jackson arrived back in January off a stint as the Redskins offensive coordinator, he ran through last year's practice tapes.

"The biggest improvement is that Kelley is playing quicker," Jackson said. "I think he understands more after a year in the system, but I also think he's starting to understand in this league it's all about separation. He's beginning to create that more. He's a physical player who can go get the ball, and he's very focused."

Where everybody fits is hard to say, although right now Warrick and Johnson are the starters and Warrick is the slot receiver in three wides. Certainly it is going to take a superb training camp from fifth-rounder Maurice Mann to make the club, and certainly the Bengals have enough of a variety (speed with the two Johnsons, moves with Warrick, strength with Washington , route running with Houshmandzadeh, special teams with Walter) that everybody would have a niche and more would be icing on the cake.

"It's all about matchups," Patrick Johnson said. 'I know my first role is returning kicks, and then after that it's fitting into a spot. And everybody should get better because of the competition"

"Everybody brings something to the table," Washington said. "I think this offense has enough to do some big things."

But it's May. The first day of coaching sessions. The first day of the little things. A long way to go.

"I liked that we got lined up right for the most part," Jackson said. "We looked like we knew where to go. Let's build on that consistency."

**

DELTHA DEBUT:** This is why the Bengals made the trade. This is why the Bengals swapped first-round picks with the Broncos to get cornerback Deltha O'Neal last month.

On his first rep as a Bengal Tuesday, O'Neal's No. 24 appeared in a one-on-one drill matched up against wide receiver Patrick Johnson. O'Neal backpedaled, read the come-back route, knifed in front of Johnson at the last instant and got both hands on the ball.

"He's very instinctive. He's got a knack of getting his hands on the ball," said secondary coach Kevin Coyle, not overly impressed with technique on the play but very mindful of the upgrade O'Neal brings to his unit.

"He's a great addition as a playmaker. We just have to hone his technique," Coyle said. "We think with footwork and other technique things, you put that with his tremendous athleticism. . .we already think he's an excellent player."

Coyle also noted another O'Neal play in Tuesday's practice . He ran with the receiver down the sideline, kept his composure, pinned his man to the sideline and knocked the ball away.

"I'm just happy to be playing defense. It's glorious," said O'Neal, who had been switched to receiver during last season in Denver. "I'm just trying to make plays. Whatever I can do to help my defense get off the field, I'm going to do it."

O'Neal also finally got to talk extensively with his fellow starting cornerback, Tory James. James played in Denver before O'Neal did, but O'Neal feels like he knows him well because James was good friends with Broncos receiver Rod Smith and Smith talked to O'Neal about James. Plus, O'Neal saw James and the Raiders play twice a year against Denver.

"I always watch other cornerbacks and I always thought he was one of the best they had. I couldn't believe they let him go," O'Neal said. "He's a big guy and he's a playmaker."

They bring a combined 37 career interceptions to the Opening Day starting lineup for a defense needing playmakers. Since 1998, Bengals cornerbacks have accounted for 34 interceptions.

BEDINGHAUS HIRED: The Bengals announced Tuesday that they have hired Bob Bedinghaus as director of development for Paul Brown Stadium. Bedinghaus, point man for Cincinnati's football and baseball stadiums as a Hamilton County Commissioner, joins the Bengals after having assisted the club as a consultant since September, 2001.

"Bob has been instrumental on Paul Brown Stadium matters, riverfront development matters, and in the recruitment of more major public events," said Troy Blackburn, the Bengals director of business development. "His knowledge and experience are of great value to the organization."

Bedinghaus is at the hub of the FieldTurf installation at PBS. The project is scheduled to end June 30, seven weeks before the Bengals' first pre-season home game Aug. 21 against the Super Bowl champion Patriots. . .

CAMP QUICKIES: "Camp Tranquility," opened Tuesday as Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis welcomed about 80 players to Paul Brown Stadium for the first day of the first week of on-field coaching sessions. All but two starters showed and all 11 draft picks attended the session that runs through Thursday. DE Duane Clemons is expected to work Wednesday. TE Reggie Kelly is attending to family matters this week.

"We've got a couple of guys dealing with some family things and a couple of guys in school," Lewis said. . .

With his full complement of veteran running backs and wide receivers, QB Carson Palmer took about 65 percent of the snaps with the rest going to Jon Kitna and seventh-rounder Casey Bramlet. . .

After the first full-scale view of his 2004 roster, Lewis observed, "I think we're a lot faster. You can't tell your strength until you play football, but I know we had a great offseason as far as the weight room and running goes already since March 22 and it will show when we get to play in real games. I think we're in better shape because everybody knows what is expected. I don't think there was a fall-off from the end of the season until now. I think the biggest difference is that we have guys who have maintained all the way through." . . .

Bengals RB Skip Hicks has been named NFL Europe Offensive Player of the Week for the second time this season after his 123-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Frankfurt Galaxy's 27-24 victory last Sunday over the Scottish Claymores. Hicks leads NFL Europe with 458 rushing yards and nine touchdowns (seven rushing, two receiving). He averaged 7.7 yards per rush on 16 carries against the Claymores, helping Frankfurt to a 6-1 record and a first-place tie with Berlin. Frankfurt hosts Berlin this Sunday at 1 p.m. EDT. The game is to be broadcast live on the NFL Network (Channel 212 on Direct TV), and will be replayed on the network at 8 p.m. EDT on Sunday. . .

Also Tuesday, the Bengals signed college free agent wide receiver Jay Chapman of St. Augustine's (N.C.) to a one-year contract.

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