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Simmons seeks return to rank

Posted: 2:10 p.m.



Darrin Simmons is being decisive on not being indecisive. After watching his special teams fall out of the NFL's Top 10 rankings, he has declared an all-out competition for the punt return job among Deltha O'Neal, Tab Perry and incumbent Keiwan Ratliff, among others.

Simmons has cajoled, coaxed and cracked the Bengals special teams out of the basement during his three seasons. They were last when he arrived, 25th his first year and seventh last year, so he's not pleased with the No. 16 ranking for 2005 that came out of Rick "Goose" Gosselin's annual special teams rankings in the Dallas Morning News.

Gosselin compiles the overall ranking by adding together the places in the league where the teams finished in 22 different categories. The Bengals fate was sealed finishing next to last in punt returns at No. 31, a bit of a mystery since Ratliff helped the Bengals to a No. 10 ranking in 2004. So Simmons is emphasizing punt returns this offseason much like he did kick returns last offseason.

Look for it to be a key element during the draft as the Bengals ponder how high to draft a cornerback or wide receiver.

"No question there has to be competition when you almost finish last," Simmons says. "No matter who is back there, we need them to make a decision and stick with it. We need them to be decisive. We can't be indecisive. When you're indecisive, you play slow. If we had finished where we did last year in punt return, we would have finished as high overall."

Simmons doesn't want to do it, but if he has to he'll look at regulars such as cornerback Deltha O'Neal and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. O'Neal had some big returns in '04, but a sore knee slowed him last year, and Houshmandzadeh did it before he became a starting receiver.

"Some teams do that. They put a regular there," Simmons says. "Look at Antwaan Randle El in Pittsburgh and Dennis Northcutt in Cleveland. You don't like to do it because of what they give you elsewhere, but it's a spot where you need production."

Which is why Simmons is going to give Perry a shot at returning punts in the preseason after a rookie year he set the club's yardage record and was the main reason the Bengals went from the 20s to ninth in kick returns.

"He's proven he can make things happen with the ball and if he makes some plays in preseason he could be the guy returning punts," Simmons says.

Also factor in practice squad receiver Jamall Broussard, who returned one 91 yards in the 2004 preseason against the Patriots that got called back because of a penalty.

Also factor in the draft, where the Bengals are going to be looking for two-way guys. It's how they settled on Perry in the sixth round last year. It's also how the Panthers settled on future Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith in the third round when Simmons was in Carolina in 2001.

"That's why we picked him and he pretty much just returned punts his rookie year," Simmons says.

Naturally, the strongest part of the Bengals game turned out to be covering punts. Playing in a division in which they played three of the league's top four punt return teams (Baltimore 1, Pittsburgh 3, Cleveland 4), the Bengals finished 16th defending punt returns. Plus, they finished seventh in kick coverage even though they covered 91 of them, second most to the Giants' 98.

Which is why Simmons is anxiously looking at free agency. Four players he calls his core players from those units, linebackers Marcus Wilkins and Hannibal Navies, safety Anthony Mitchell, and wide receiver Kevin Walter are free, although Walter is restricted.

"To have them back would be big for continuity," Simmons says. "That's a big reason we played so well last year in that phase because we had carryover from '04."

The Bills topped the special teams rankings for the second straight year but lost their head coach and Houston finished fourth but won the No. 1 draft pick.

But in the AFC North special teams are important for survival. The Super Bowl champion Steelers finished 13th, the Browns finished sixth, and even though the Ravens finished 24th they had B.J. Sams, the NFL's second-leading punt returner.

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