BY GEOFF HOBSON
When kicker Doug Pelfrey, snapper Greg Truitt and punter/holder Lee Johnson were the special teams trio for the Bengals during nearly five seasons in the mid-1990s, they fancied themselves a do-wop singing group. While crooning, they became one of the NFL's best kicking-punting tandems because of their time together.
But after last season's unmitigated disaster took the Bengals off the charts with seven missed field goals under 50 yards and four blocked or deflected punts, the club's producers went in a new direction.
They've created The Show-Me Trio and their lockers are side-by-side with punter Daniel Pope, kicker Neil Rackers and snapper Brad St. Louis. Left to right.
Rackers and St. Louis are rookies who grew up in Missouri and Pope is coming off a rookie season in Kansas City in which he punted all 16 games. The final vestige of last season's carnage was released this morning with punter Brad Costello. Much of it wasn't even Costello's fault, but his fingerprints were at the scene and that may have been enough.
"Our return game was splendid, one of the best in the league," said Bengals President Mike Brown of returners Tremain Mack and Craig Yeast. "Our kicking game might have been the worst. Almost record-setting."
This afternoon, Costello wondered how his torn hip flexor he suffered a year ago in preseason affected the lives of many. He was Pelfrey's holder and confidant and his absence from the season's first 10 games as the punter/kickoff man proved to be a domino effect.
The Bengals had to teach safety Greg Myers and new punter Will Brice how to hold on the job. Never mind that the Bengals finished last in the NFL with 13 punts inside the 20, finished next-to-last in the league in letting their opponents reach their own 31.6-yard line on kickoffs, and had the second most kickoffs go out-of-bounds in the NFL with four.
"You don't know. But I think my injury had an impact on Doug's career," Costello said. "Doug came back and had a solid camp. I think we all did well. We each have different strengths. But I got the sense they wanted to go in a new direction. That they were looking to make a fresh start."
As Pope said, "The pressure of messing up again is not there. You just have to do what you have to do. . .What I've heard is they're trying to start fresh with the new facilities and it's beautiful. Now you've got three new fresh guys. Nothing against the old guys because they were great. There were other parts of the team they've been saying where there was negativity. Now there are new guys in a lot of places."
The Bengals have been doing moves like this ever since the 24-7 loss in Jacksonville ended the season. Throw in Pope, Rackers and St. Louis and there are nine new starters on the depth chart since Jan. 2. That's not including James Hundon or Ron Dugans, the players who will replace wide receiver Darnay Scott.
"This is a different team and I don't understand it when people keep saying it's the same old Bengals," said second-year quarterback Akili Smith. "How can you say that? It's stupid saying we're the old Bengals. We weren't a part of that stuff."
Asked about watching two rookies and a second-year guy line up for a crucial field goal, and Smith said, "Youth movement. We'll be together for a long time and we'll get better as a team. So to say that we'll be dangerous this year and dangerous in the future is a definite (possibility)."
Special teams coach Al Roberts, who lived through three disasters last year that included a tornado and heart surgery, is actually feeling chipper about this group. Not queasy.
"Queasy is what you feel when you lose your long snapper in preseason for the year and the fourth guy you try hasn't done it in eight years," said Roberts of Truitt's knee injury last season. "Queasy is when you lose (Costello) and you're teaching guys to hold for the first time. That's queasy. These guys we have now are naturals."
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St. Louis' father, who like his son played football at Southwest Missouri State before playing in Canada, took him out in the backyard in the seventh grade and taught him to long snap. Pope, out of Alabama, has kicked in hostile end zones from Baton Rouge to Auburn. Rackers caught the eye of long-time Jets kicker Pat Leahy when he was a sophomore in high school and found his mentor.
"The thing I like about Pope is that he's a good holder because he works at holding," Rackers said. "That's kind of a rare thing."
It's ironic the Lions come to town Friday because before Detroit cut him last season, Pope studied how punter John Jett held the ball. Pope says he helped save a game late last season in Kansas City with a catch, and Rackers says his hands helped on the 47- and 41-yarders when the snaps maybe weren't dead-letter perfect in Atlanta.
"I think the fact we've been working together already for a month is going to help us," Pope said. "It all comes down to fundamentals and mechanics."
Pope is happy with the speed of the field-goal operation, which he said today was 1.25 seconds. Right where you want it. Pelfrey was reportedly anywhere between 1.39 and 1.5 seconds. Costello had no gripes. But he knew the Bengals have been intensely concerned about pinning foes with kickoffs and he was mildly surprised they opted for a punter who can't kick off with a rookie kicker.
"We're going to teach Pope to kick off in some form," Roberts said. "He does onside kicks well, but we'll work with him inch-by-inch to get him ready to finish a game if he has to."
One thing about Pope. It's, "Daniel." Not, "Dan," or "Danny." Not since third grade, "when Miss Copeland called me 'Danny,' and my mother said, 'I named him Daniel.' "
What's in a name? The Bengals hope some beautiful music.