8-4-01, 10:15 a.m.
BY DAVE GAYLINN
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ While the roster battle most people are focused on during Bengals training camp is at quarterback, there are other fights. Two are on special teams, where the incumbents are getting all they can handle.
Returning punter Daniel Pope is being forced to perform at a high level just to make the roster and his competition is no stranger to the Bengals.
Will Brice spent 11 games as Cincinnati's punter in 1999, when he booted the second-longest punt in team history with a 72-yarder at Tennessee in the opener. But he struggled with consistency and after the Bengals cut him late in the season, Brice was waived in the 2000 preseason by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Brice feels he has learned how to become a more effective punter
since his first stint with the Bengals.
"Mainly, the difference between the last time I was here to now is my get-off time. I've improved that," Brice said. "All of the coaches have commented that I do not look like the same punter. I have worked on that in the last year and a half."
Pope set a Bengals record with 94 punts last year. He also handled the holding duties on place kicks. He knows Brice's ability to kick long is in the way. Pope is known more for his consistent 41 yards per kick average than his length.
"I've worked real hard in the offseason to work on some things," Pope said. "It's important to get with the (long) snappers and get around the guys. I'm starting to punt the ball real well, so I'm happy about that."
Both punters said their best kicks have not been displayed yet during this training camp. They have used camp as a time to tinker with their approach, acclimate themselves to the long snappers, and fit into the plans of special teams coach Al Roberts.
Roberts said that there is no time for tinkering when the competition begins with Saturday's first preseason game against the Chicago Bears.
"The competition is extremely close. They seem to take turns getting the ball off quicker. They seem to be taking turns with distance, hang time and hand to foot. What we're going to do now is we're going to play it where it lays," Roberts said. "We're going to start with Chicago on Saturday night and whoever kicks the best, and looks like he's going to be the most mature back there, is the guy we're going to go with."
Roberts said the coaching staff will make sure that the punters get an even number of punts during the preseason in order to make a fair decision. This weekend, Pope will punt in the first half and Brice in the second half. If the punts are one-sided, they will swap for the game at Detroit Friday.
In a similar battle, returning kicker Neil Rackers and veteran Richie Cunningham begin their faceoff against the Bears with Rackers getting work in the first half and Cunningham going in the second.
In his rookie season last year, Rackers connected on 71.4% of his kicks inside 40 yards and hit all 21 extra points. He also handled kickoffs in limiting the opposition to just over 20 yards per kickoff return.
But he missed five of seven tries between 40 and 49 yards and is pressed by Cunningham, a 30-year-old four years removed from leading the NFC in field-goal accuracy for Dallas.
Cunningham's experience allows him to view this training camp as something other than a one-on-one battle and as only preparation for the regular season.
"I don't really regard it as a competition," he said. "My kicking, so far, I feel really good about it. I'm starting to get used to the snappers and the holders, which is all a part of training camp. It usually takes a couple days before it all comes together."
Rackers has taken advantage of Cunningham's experience by asking his advice on certain aspects of kicking. He said Cunningham has pointed out a slight misplacement of his plant foot.
Roberts said this position will be handled the same way as the punters.
"We're really going to let it lay on the game field as to who is going to win these jobs. It is really out of the
coaches' hands," Roberts said. "I'm really going to put it in their laps and let them win the job on game day."