8-30-03, 8:30 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
INDIANAPOLIS _ It seems to be the cruelest of jokes.
After this training camp under this head coach in which so much time and energy has been invested in special teams, the Bengals actually looked worse here in Friday night's pre-season finale against the Colts than they did when they finished last in the NFL's kicking game rankings in 2002.
At least, punters Nick Harris and Travis Dorsch said after the odd 21-20 loss, they were able to catch and hold a snap last year.
With both fighting for a roster spot, they each ended up fighting the ball. Harris dropped his third and fourth snaps of the preseason and Dorsch dropped his first hold to blow up three Neil Rackers' field-goal attempts.
It left Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis livid and vowing to find a new holder even though the regular-season opener against Denver is just eight days away.
Is the most relieved guy in the building wide receiver Danny Farmer? He couldn't play Friday night because of a bruised knee and watched rookie receiver Lawrence Hamilton strafe Indianapolis for 121 yards on four catches and maybe put heat on him or whomever else for that fifth and what looks to be final roster spot.
But Farmer could be a lock now because he has one of the best pair of hands on the team and he has been listed in the past as a backup holder. Right now, there is no one listed behind Harris and Dorsch.
Harris was left shaking his head with no explanation.
"I know it's not mental," Harris said. "It can't be. We did it all last year. We've done it in practice. And we have three bad ones with two different guys in the same game? That tells you something isn't right."
Harris said it's not the snapping of Brad St. Louis, who has been doing it with virtually no problems for three years. Is there a clue there or not? When new special teams coach
Darrin Simmons arrived, he switched St. Louis' grip on field goals and extra points so the holders could catch the ball with the laces away from the kicker. He also moved the spot to 7 ¾ yards away from the center.
But Simmons puts them through so many snaps and holds in practice, that it's hard to believe that is a problem so deep into the preseason.
"It's a lack of focus. That's what it has to be," Dorsch said. "I just didn't catch it. What else can it be?"
The kicking balls are slicker because they are new for each game. Harris, who dropped two in the rain in New Jersey in the opener, dropped two inside in the RCA Dome Friday night. And he isn't using the balls as an excuse. In fact, he's using nothing for an excuse. The first snap was a bit high, but no different than the one Harris pulled down against Detroit for one of Rackers' three field goals. Aug. 16.
Rackers, who missed his only attempt Friday night to the left from 36 yards away to cap a three-step fiasco at the end of the first half, has no idea what is causing the problem.
"I couldn't tell you," he said.
But after Dorsch's fumble, he came back on fourth down to hit a 31-yarder. Yet that got wiped out by a false start on right tackle Willie Anderson. Everyone's nerves had to be shot when he lined up for the 36-yarder that went left.
"That had nothing to do with it," Rackers said. "I've got to make them no matter what."
What was supposed to be the last duel between Harris and Dorsch to decide the punter's spot for the regular season got lost in the holding pattern. The kicking part was a virtual draw, with each getting two punts and Harris averaging 42 yards for a net of 42.5 and one inside the 20 while Dorsch averaged 41.5, a net of 41.5, and he also put one inside the 20.
Harris, who hasn't had this problem for two years here after coming out of the University of California with a good-hands rep, dropped four snaps in the preseason. Can a guy lose his punting job because of his holding?
Dorsch did get off the longest punt of the night, a 55-yarder, but it came virtue of a good AstroTurf bounce.
The post-game buzz in the locker room centered on the quarterbacks as the possible next holders. It can't be Jon Kitna, the starter, ("N-o-o-o-o," he said), and it can't be the third quarterback, which looks to be rookie Carson Palmer. Besides, the Bengals no doubt don't want their $50 million investment putting his fingers in jeopardy.
Which leaves backup quarterback Shane Matthews.
"Somebody already asked me during the game if I could do it," Matthews said. "I did it one time with the Bears, got hit in the back, and that was it."
By Monday at practice, it may be more than one.
Lewis was asked if it's too late to make such a move with the opener looming.
"It's never too late to do anything," he said.
Rackers was asked the same thing and said considering how much they practice at it, he didn't think it would be too much of a problem.