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Special gripes

8-9-02, 3:25 p.m.

As Bengaldom heads into Friday night's pre-season opener, angst is sweeping the striped countryside over the kicking game. In last Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage in which incumbent Neil Rackers (48 yards) and rookie Travis Dorsch (41) missed those kind of field goals a team with a top-rated defense and elite running game have to have.

There is also another impassioned defense of Akili Smith and a call for Curtis Keaton on kickoffs. Here are some Hobson's Choice e-mails.

Why does (special teams coach) Al Roberts and the staff have Travis Dorsch working on both kicking and punting? This makes no sense to me. True, Dorsch has done both in college, but we have a punter already, and we are in DIRE need for a FG kicker!!!!!!! Shouldn't they have Dorsch just focus on kicking? We know Rackers is a great "practice" kicker, but we also know too well that he is HORRIBLE when it counts. **ERIC,Florence, Ky.

ERIC: You called it. The day you wrote is the day they told Dorsch to cool it on punting until he gets his kicking straightened out. It's probably a good idea to let him keep practicing punts once he gets squared away because there might be a game he could do both in a pinch because of injuries. But they certainly don't need a punter with how well Nick Harris has done and they certainly need three points more often.

In Rackers' defense, he has come out kicking well and didn't just hand the job to Dorsch. Not all of this is Rackers' fault, given the condition of the PBS grass. And the kid did end last season with two straight winning kicks. But he's also below NFL standard on the road and it's clear that this year just having great practices won't carry him.**

Hobs, I'm a little worried that we are going to have kicking problems again this year based on the poor kicking early at camp. Why not lose Rackers or Dorsch and pick up a proven vet? It just makes more sense to me. **JAY, Milwaukee.

JAY: That's a very solid argument. You could almost argue that they needed Todd Peterson more than they needed Gus Frerotte. Peterson isn't

going to the Pro Bowl, but he's the 75-to-80 percent guy that might have put them in the playoffs last year even with Jon Kitna throwing 22 interceptions. But Peterson is in Pittsburgh now and that means a lot of fingers are going to be crossed on Oct. 13 and Nov. 24.

Both Rackers and Dorsch are going to kick in the NFL for a long time once they get it figured out. Their legs are too good. But the future is now given the high performance of the running game and defense. It's the exact type of team that needs field goals.**

Special teams, special teams. They are called that to be that. Special and make a difference. How can management look the 52 players in the eye and say they are trying to win when they will not fix the special teams? **ED, Dayton, Ohio.

ED: A sixth-round pick in 2000 for Rackers and a fourth-round pick in 2002 for Dorsch is investing quite a bit. The interesting thing will be to see what they'll do if both falter in the preseason.**

I was at the scrimmage on Saturday.and I had a front row seat for the coaching staff passing over Akili Smith once again. Now granted, what throws I did see from him were a bit high. But I only counted two or three pass attempts from him in his set of plays. In fact, his first three plays in the scrimmage went as running plays. Then the fourth as a scramble, which he did well.

I'm a huge Bengals fan and I like Akili Smith. I just think that he's had a long streak of really bad breaks, and a shortened maturing process in the league. Maybe it's just my perception, but I saw the coaching staff passing over Akili one more time on Saturday, and making it easier for them to not even consider him for the starting job. **MIKE, Louisville, Ky.

MIKE: Akili is way down there in the pecking order as the No. 3 and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said as much on the eve of camp. He thought the hamstring injury had left him so far behind that his best shot was moving up to No. 2.

Smith has looked good at training camp, but the guys ahead of him still have the advantage over him when it comes to running the offense (Kitna) and accuracy on the long ball (Frerotte).

He has done much better with the mental aspect at this camp, but Smith has to show in a game that he's capable of making the proper protection calls and not thinking run first and second, throw third.

The only guy who has him beat in the jinx department is Ki-Jana Carter. Two of his three seasons have ended in injury, and it didn't exactly help him when the guy who was the driving force of his offense resigned as head coach three games into his first season as the starter.

All that said, the coaches have to win now, and they are convinced their best shot at the moment is with Kitna or Frerotte instead of a young guy with just 16 NFL starts coming off major surgery.**

Butch, I'd like to see Curtis Keaton as the main kickoff returner and Peter Warrick as the main punt returner. Is that how you see things shaping up? **A.R., West Chester, Ohio.

A.R.: It is certainly going to be that way with Warrick and why it hasn't been that way his first two years in the league is anyone's guess. Despite all his problems late last season, he has a shot at running back two punts all the way every year and changing those games.

Keaton is a tougher call because he's in a mega fight with Rudi Johnson for a running back spot. Johnson looks like he's running behind an invisible fence compared to Keaton on kickoffs, but Johnson is also a guy who can carry the ball 25 to 30 times a game if needed and the only other running back who can do that is Corey Dillon.

It's going to be interesting because if they cut Keaton, can they afford to put T.J. Houshmandzadeh back there to return if he becomes a key figure in the passing game? Particularly without Michael Westbrook?**

I noticed that there are nine wide receivers listed on the roster, how many will the team keep for their final roster and who are the strongest candidates at this time? **TERRY, San Diego.

TERRY: Actually, there are 11 on the roster and it's all but certain to be six. Especially with Westbrook (wrist) and Danny Farmer (hamstring) currently shelved, although Farmer returns to practice in limited fashion Sunday.

They join Houshmandzadeh, Warrick, Chad Johnson and Ron Dugans. By the way, former Bengals receiver Darnay Scott was demoted to the No. 3 receiver in Jacksonville this week because he's apparently had trouble picking up the offense.

Still, the Jaguars' three-receiver set of Bobby Shaw, Patrick Johnson and Scott isn't Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, but they can stretch the field on you.**

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