Rookie receivers under gun

9-4-03, 10:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals are going to find out a lot about rookie receiver Kelley Washington right now, and maybe a little bit about Lawrence Hamilton.

Both caught long touchdown passes against the Colts in last Friday's pre-season finale, but now they find themselves going the distance as the only backups to Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick for Sunday's game against the Broncos after T.J. Houshmandzadeh went down with a hamstring pull in Wednesday's practice.

The Bengals have given no indication they are going to add another receiver before the game, such as the recently-released Danny Farmer. If he is on the Opening Day roster, they would be responsible for his entire 2003 salary, and they are too tight against the salary cap to do it. Plus, they would have to cut a player they liked enough to put on their 53-man roster. P>Farmer could get re-signed next week because hamstrings usually take more than a week to heal. But he also may not. The major reason he got cut is because of what Hamilton showed them on special teams. But Washington, the third-round pick, is the one everybody is going to be watching. He'll get his

baptism by fire as the third receiver when Warrick slides into the slot.

The 6-3 218-pound Washington has never failed to exude confidence and Thursday was no different. He feels comfortable stepping into such a spot because it reminds him how he broke into the Tennessee lineup as a freshman two years ago. When Donte' Stallworth went down, Washington went up with three 100-yard games.

"When I made that play the other night, I tried not to get too excited," Washington said of the 52-yard touchdown bomb in which his stutter step tripped up the cornerback. "I expect that from myself when I go on the field."

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski says Washington is a good student who is improving and is has put himself in a good position.

But zero NFL catches are still zero NFL catches.

"This is why we drafted him," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "I think he's progressed well. There's only one way to find out how far he's really progressed and that's playing Sunday. I think he'll be up for the challenge."

He was last Friday with 99 yards, but he realizes he is still early in his football career.

"It's not only learning the offense, it's also learning the wide receiver position," Washington said. "I've only played it for two years, but it's getting better. The big thing I'm doing is concentrating on running my routes in the right spot."

Hamilton is at the other end of the rookie story. A total of 33 days after the free agent from Stephen F. Austin got cut by the Cardinals, and 32 days after the Bengals claimed him on waivers only because another rookie free agent receiver got hurt, he's going to be dressing in a NFL game.

The game also comes a year and a week after his worst football moment. On Aug. 31 2002, his 22nd birthday, he shattered his ankle in the first game of the year and missed his entire season. On Aug. 31, 2003, he found out he had made a NFL roster.

"A lot of work, a lot of work," Hamilton said. "It was a blessing when Arizona cut me. They had 13 receivers out there and they were only giving the top eight work. The other five of us would do nothing in practice. The minute I came here, they put me right in the mix and I haven't looked back."

He caught four balls for 121 yards against the Colts, including a 68-yard-catch and-run off a short slant for a touchdown. But special teams coach Darrin Simmons is still shaking his head over the kid making the tackle on the ensuing kickoff. Simmons quizzed him on his job on the kickoff team even as Hamilton celebrated his second NFL touchdown, and the guy not only gave the right answer, "I'll be damned if he didn't go down and make a play.

"He's got a calmness about him," Simmons said.

Both rookie receivers will need that Sunday.

SHARPE OBSERVATIONS ON LEWIS: Now you know that Marvin Lewis has legitimized the Bengals. Now you know the rest of the NFL is no longer laughing. Now you know, because even Shannon Sharpe is saying nice things.

Sharpe, the Broncos tight end who has tortured the Bengals verbally all these years, saved his most creative insults when he was with the then AFC Central rival Ravens.

Remember when Jerome Bettis said Takeo Spikes was as good a linebacker as Ray Lewis and Sharpe fired back that the comparison was like comparing the hit move, "Titanic," to the bomb, "Dude, Where's My Car?" ?

But it was also those days in Baltimore that Sharpe saw Marvin Lewis work and why he thinks he'll turn around the Bengals.

"He understands. He's been around great players and they believed in him," Sharpe told the Denver media Wednesday. "Because he has something that no other guy that's come to Cincinnati has. He has a Super Bowl championship. And from a defensive standpoint,

he knows defense inside and out. And when you go through 16 games and only give up 165 points and you give up 10 points in the playoffs in, what? four games. That speaks volumes.

"He comes with credibility, first and foremost," Sharpe said. "I don't know how much credibility those other guys had. I don't know if they really believed that they could get it done. This guy has these guys believing."

Sharpe, who must have been studying up for that announcing gig in case the axe fell this training camp on his 35 years, has been reading the tea leaves in Bengaland.

"There are very few coaches who have really come in there and shook up things like he has," Lewis said. "He's done a great job. So, we have our hands full but we'll be ready for the challenge."

Sharpe knows the Broncos have an X-and-O challenge Sunday because he has watched Lewis stump offenses before. Especially if he has a whole offseason to think about it. Sharpe said the Broncos have watched the Bengals' pre-season film and last year's Redskins' tape to prep for this one.

"I know from being with Marvin two years that he'll have the guys ready to play. They'll be where they're supposed to be," Sharpe said. "And if you beat them, you beat them because you performed your technique better than they did theirs. They're not going to be out of position and they won't be making a lot of mistakes because that's one thing Marvin is very attentive to detail. He reminds me a lot of Mike (Shanahan). He goes over things over and over and over to make sure that if you win the ballgame, you outperformed them."

**

KICKING INTRIGUE:** Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was asked Wednesday if the Bengals broke one of the rules of the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement when they waived an injured player in the release of kicker Neil Rackers.

"I'm not a CBA lawyer," Lewis said, and, nobody else is saying anything, either. But indications are they didn't.

The Bengals won't confirm Rackers suffered a torn meniscus in the knee of his plant foot in Friday night's pre-season finale, as has been reported. Rackers won't discuss his health and his agent, Rob Roche, didn't return two phone calls Wednesday. After clearing waivers

Tuesday, Rackers didn't rule out re-signing with the Bengals.

Players can only be cut because of performance and if they are healthy enough to play. Sources are saying that Rackers was able to kick Sunday in a workout and did well, and still got cut. Lewis said the move was made because of "ability to perform."

Everyone seems to want to keep their options open. Rackers wants teams to be interested in him. The Bengals don't want to get sued, but they have a new head coach making moves and there was a kicker on the waiver wire they claimed who has kicked for their special teams coach and who had a better two-year percentage than Rackers.

The bottom line is, no one is saying if Rackers has a knee problem or not.

"That's not really for us to explain," Lewis said. "It was just the best option for us as far as performance and opportunity goes.

"Basically it's the ability to perform.  It's a difficult thing," Lewis said. " What I was pleased about was that I think our people did an excellent job of gathering the information, and trying to put before me what was our best options so we could go forward as a football team.  Unfortunately, right now it didn't include Neil, and we're very sorry for him and how hard he has worked. For us it was the best thing to do.  We are very fortunate to get Shane (Graham) and get him up and running right away."

GLOVED ANSWER: Equipment managers Rob Recker, Jeff Brickner, and Scott Hill may have solved the Bengals' holding problems by delving into the team trunk and taking out a right-handed glove for Nick Harris. It's a "Double Grip Poly Prop," model.

"It's just like the wide receivers use," Harris said. "Why do they use it? So they can control the ball. It gives us the best chance to get the ball down. It wasn't a problem catching the ball, it was the ball squirting out in the half-second as I was placing it down."

Harris, who bobbled four snaps of field goals and extra points in the preseason, had been wearing a glove on his left hand the past few weeks. Now he'll have gloves on both hands: "Most positions except quarterback use them."

SLANTS AND SCREENS: RB Rudi Johnson (thigh) and OL Victor Leyva (chest) are out for Sunday's game. . .WR Chad Johnson (ankle) isn't listed on the injury report. . .But WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh may have problems. He left Wednesday's practice early on a cart. Options if it's a serious injury? Danny Farmer, cut on Sunday, is out there somewhere. . .

Running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, recently cut by the Steelers, signed with Jacksonville Wednesday. He had drawn some interest from the Bengals, but he'll be playing both running back and fullback for the Jaguars. . . **

MOONLIGHT GRAHAM:** Yes, new Bengals kicker Michael Shayne Graham has seen "Field of Dreams," and, yes, sometimes he has been called "Moonlight." But his parents call him "Shayne." Marvin Lewis called him pretty good, and doesn't think the Bengals get hurt on kickoffs even though it's not known as a Graham strength.

"I don't think we lose anything," Lewis said. " Darrin (special teams coach Simmons) feels real comfortable with him, and he did a nice job when he kicked yesterday, so we feel like we'll gain some things, actually."

Graham may have red hair that almost matches his orange helmet, but he prides himself on not being outwardly fiery.

"I don't show my emotions," Graham said. "Some guys like to (celebrate after a kick). Sometimes you really can't even tell by the look on my face whether I made it or not."

Graham, picked up off waivers Monday, had his first workout Tuesday, and the obvious concerns are about his timing with holder Nick Harris and long-snapper Brad St. Louis. Graham admits he has heard, "murmurings," about the problems the Bengals have had holding the snap in the preseason. But that's all.

"It looked good to me," Graham said of his early attempts. "My job is not to even worry about that. There's nothing I can do to affect it. All I can do is get what I'm given. I have confidence the ball is going to be where it needs to be and I'm going to get a fair chance to kick it."

Of course, Graham and Simmons have been through this before. They actually have more time to get timed up than last year in Carolina, where Simmons was the assistant special teams coach. Graham signed his contract with the Panthers, then went to a walk-through, then got on a plane to Green Bay, and tried to get timed up during pre-game warmups the next day.

"We had (Tuesday), we've got today, Thursday and Friday," Graham said. "It helps that Darrin is here. I know a lot of the terms he's using and that gives me a comfort level."

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