Special camp

8-8-03, 4:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _Darrin Simmons had just finished giving his nightly special teams sermon – his head coach calls him a "preacher," _ and as the sweat poured off him linebacker Adrian Ross told him it was OK to unbutton the top button of his shirt.

"He's always up, he's always at it," Ross said. We told him, 'Coach, it's all right. You can relax now.'"

But that's just it. The Bengals' special teams have been so bad down through the years, no one can relax. That's why head coach Marvin Lewis hired the heavily caffenated Simmons after watching his career burgeon from ballboy at Ravens training camp all those years ago. Now he's the buzz of this training camp as he tries to get the unloved special teamers to grow up.

It might be a computer file. A quarter of a yard on a hold. Or changing the jug machines to spit out a left-footed punt. "Everything is life or death for Darrin no mater what it is," Lewis said. "But he can laugh about it and move on. He's a preacher. I sit in on his meetings at night and he has that delivery to the guys. He's not monotone at all. He's got color, bells, and whistles and he's got the tape to back it up."

There is also plenty of tape to show why the Bengals' special teams have been a major reason why they haven't won lately. Last year, their gaffe of the week became a staple of ESPN Sundays in allowing three punt returns, a kickoff return, and a blocked punt for touchdowns.

Not to mention fumbled punts in one-touchdown losses to Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, and a killing 12-men-on-the-field penalty on a Jacksonville punt that turned a 15-14 lead into a 22-15 deficit late in the third quarter.

Relax? As bad as it was last year, the change and approach Simmons and Lewis have brought to teams at this training camp have been just as dramatic. There is a playbook, a special teams cameraman, virtually entire practices devoted to the craft, other assistant coaches deployed throughout the different portions of the kicking game, vests called "shells," that offer protection to the shoulders on those pad-less days so the special teamers can still move with great distances with some intensity.

The Bengals will see how the pieces fit in Sunday's 1 p.m. pre-season opener against the Jets at Giants Stadium. Those kinds of games are usually jumbled puzzles, but they will get a sense if they are now able to see some competence amid the chaos.

A sampling:

While players last year kept their own notes in a notebook, Simmons handed out his own thick playbook that had been culled from years working under Scott O'Brien, the NFL's resident special teams guru.

"It's not just, 'OK offense, OK defense.' Now it's like special teams, offense defense. I think it's more emphasis on special teams. It sets the tone of the game and a lot of the guys see that the coaches are serious about getting special teams turned around," said wide receiver Ron Dugans, generally regarded as the Bengals' best special teams player.

"You need to pay attention. It's not as simplified as it used to be," Dugans said. "Instead of a return left, return right, and middle return. Now you have three different returns just to the right. It's a lot different than it used to be. I know it's going to help us."

An extra video person has been assigned to a kickers-only session at another field during the morning practices, offering close-up shots of kicker Neil Rackers and punters Nick Harris and Travis Dorsch. The close shots as opposed to those taken from the tower have already helped Harris add some yardage to his big hang-time punts.

"I can see it on tape. It actually would have helped in hindsight," Harris said. "It's a lot like a golf swing. You know you're not supposed to kill it, but I never realized how far I was getting away from it."

Simmons is getting help from all kinds of coaches, especially Lewis. When you hear the head man screaming at the punt personal protector, you know it's important. Secondary coach Kevin Coyle is working with the punt returners, running backs coach Jim Anderson with the kick returners, receivers coach Alex Wood and assistant secondary coach Louie Cioffi with the gunners who cover punts, and tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes works the kickoff coverage. Hayes, who turns 43 Monday, played 12-years in the NFL and looks like he could play a 13th as Ross found out on one kick.

"I'm hearing Coach Hayes yelling at me, 'Get off the block, get off the block,'" Ross said. "And I'm thinking, 'That sounds like he's pretty close.' And there he was running right behind me. It's good because he sees what you're seeing."

Simmons, 30, a former punter at Kansas, does his share of running down field. He loves the input from Lewis for a lot of reasons. Not all head coaches are infatuated with special teams, as Simmons found out early in his career with George Seifert in Carolina.

"Coach Seifert was out of the West Coast and a lot of those guys were of the mind just get the ball back for the offense and we'll score the points," Simmons said. "As time went on, he came around a lot on that and emphasized it. Coach Fox (current Panthers head man John) and Marvin are a lot alike. Those defensive coaches know the value of field position and Marvin has been great on the field, and when you think about it, a lot of the stuff is defensive concepts like safety leverage and tackling. And he constantly tells these guys that if they don't start, they have to play well on teams to make it."

It has been said that the Bengals worked more on special teams during their first week of this camp than in all three weeks of last year's camp. Coaches and players couldn't confirm that, but since the Bengals worked on special teams last year 15 minutes before practice (as well as some in practice), it looks like they are because Lewis displays it right in the middle of practice. And it's not uncommon for them to spend a third of a two-hour practice on teams, which is about right because it's a third of the sport, along with offense and defense.

"When you do it during practice, I think it shows the importance of it, and the players are already warmed up and going full speed," Simmons said.

The players have read all the tea leaves.

"Last year, not a lot of guys wanted to play teams and that's the way we played," Dugans said. "If you don't want to play on teams, I don't want you out there with me. And Coach Simmons has told us that. If you don't want to play, and go all-out, he'll find somebody who will. That's what I'm telling the young guys. If you want to stick this year, you better play hard on the kicking teams."

Lewis knows what he wants to see out of teams Sunday. The Bengals beating the Jets to the spot and being aggressive. That's the way Simmons sees it.

"I want guys who play hard and know what they're doing and where they have to be," he said. "You can take care of a lot by just playing hard."

Lewis finds himself shaking his head in awe at Simmons' thoroughness. He has spent the last few days on every kind of situation possible, from holders being forced to spike the ball late in the half or a game, to different types of on-side kicks, to getting the punt returns to adjust when there is no punter behind center.

Simmons was even found Thursday running a different personnel group on the field for a punt deep in his own territory with the Bengals leading by less than a touchdown and less than a minute left.

"I don't have a crystal ball. You don't know what you're going to see," Simmons said. "But prepare like nothing will surprise you."

Which may be the biggest surprise for the pundits looking at this team from the outside in when Simmons' guys handle Sunday's opening kickoff.

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