4-1-03, 8:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Ever since the Bengals took wide receiver Peter Warrick with the fourth pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, he has been trying to find "The Big Chill," and re-live those college days.
From wearing No. 9 during practice to watching old Seminoles' tapes, Warrick wants to bottle the magic he had at Florida State. He's at it again this spring, breaking out the cleats streaked with Florida State-garnet and practice-field smudges not worn since the week leading up to his MVP outing in the 2000 Sugar Bowl.
"See what this says here?" asked Warrick earlier this week as he walked out of the locker room to catch some balls, turning up his heel to reveal 'P9' written in marker.
"That's the real prime time number nine."
Darrin Simmons, the Bengals' new special teams coach, is aiding Warrick's moves through memory lane. Not only are the Bengals going to give Warrick the chance to win back the punt return job he lost on the Bengals' five-yard line in Indianapolis last year, but they are going to let him do it in the scheme he has been lobbying the team to use.
Warrick calls it "double press." Simmons calls it "vise," as in the grip. But it's the same language because it calls for the return team to use two blockers each on the contain men running down the outside to cover the punt. Those defenders are known as "gunners," and Warrick is used to running the Bengals' "single press," scheme against them, which had only one blocker on each outside man. The Bengals did it fearing fake punts, but it's believed they were the only NFL team last year to use single press on the way to an AFC-low 4.7 yards per return.
"We will vise. When we have the opportunity, we will vise," Simmons said. "Because if you can't stop the gunners, I don't care who you put back there. You could have Eric Metcalf, you could have Dave Meggett, you could have the best punt returner in the history of the league, and they are not going to be productive if you can't stop the gunners."
That is music to Warrick's ears, which have burned in the aftermath of botched punts. When he got benched for fumbling a punt late in the 2001 season, he called it a humiliating moment. When he got stripped of the job Indianapolis after setting up an easy Colts' touchdown, he bristled. He's averaging less than 10 yards per his 29 NFL punt returns.
Now, he is ecstatic. Here is a guy who has returned punts on every team he's been on since he can remember. Here's a guy who returned two punts for scores at FSU, ripped off a 90-yarder, and averaged 13 yards per his 72 career college returns. Here is a guy who Bobby Orr-ed the Jaguars on an 82-yarder as a rookie across an ice rink in late December.
"To be honest, I didn't want to go back there last year the way we were doing it," Warrick said. "But I love returning punts. I still have the love for it. I can handle (the double press). Now I can focus on catching the ball instead of worrying where the defender is."
With the cover guys always bearing down on him after beating the single press, Warrick felt as if there were too many things going on to get off a good return.
"You've got to catch the ball first," Warrick said. "But you're also thinking about what you're going to do when you get it, and if he's going to hit you as you catch it, and you hope you're not going to drop it. Now, you know you're going to get some room so you can focus and go."
Simmons said there will be times when down, distance, field position, or situation in the game could dictate that the Bengals go with single press. But since his philosophy is based on applying pressure and aggressiveness, Simmons indicated it's going to be double press most of the time.
And he knows all about Warrick. He noticed the Florida State cleats in front of Warrick's locker Monday, and the memories came back for him, too, because he scouted Warrick as the Panthers' assistant special teams coach.
"He was one of the best return guys coming out, a player who can really make it happen," Simmons said.
He's also not ruling out wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who took over for Warrick and also had two critical fumbles in games last season.
"He's obviously done some good things on returns here and we're going to look at him," Simmons said. "Flat out, the best guy is going to play, we don't care who it is."
For Warrick, he's hoping the shoes fit.