Special numbers for Bengals

2-10-04, 4:15 p.m.

Updated: 2-10-04, 11:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The numbers say what Bengals' observers already knew. Head coach Marvin Lewis' emphasis paid off in one of the most dramatic turnarounds in the 25-year history of the NFL's special teams rankings even though they finished 25th overall.

According to the computations of special teams guru Rick "Goose," Gosselin in The Dallas Morning News, the Bengals improved virtually 120 points over last year's No. 32 ranking of 499.5, the worst performance of all-time. Teams are ranked in 21 kicking categories and assigned points according to their league standing, so the Bengals' mark of 380 in 2003 left them only 20 points out of the top 20 and was their best finish since 1996.

The Steelers made the biggest leap with a 123-point gain for a 281 total that put them in third place behind Philadelphia and Carolina. But nobody came as far as the Bengals as they rode their improved worst-in-the-league punt and kick coverages into the top 10 under first-year head special teams coach Darrin Simmons.

Their punt coverage team went from last in 2002 to No. 11 in 2003, their kick coverage went from last to No. 9, and the revived Peter Warrick sparked the punt return team from next-to-last to No. 12.

"I don't get caught up in the averages, the numbers," Simmons said. "As long as we're improved, because the numbers are going to be just numbers."

Simmons has no hesitations when it comes to where the Bengals need to improve in 2004. They dropped from No. 4 in the NFL in 2002 in drive start following kickoffs to No. 27, and went from 10th to 27th in kick return average. With kick returner and backup running back Brandon Bennett unsigned, the Bengals may be in the market for a younger and more explosive return man.

Although the other area that needs improvement is punting (the Bengals finished 24th in gross punting average and 30th in net), Simmons is not looking to replace Kyle Richardson. Richardson, who turns 31 next month, suffered from inconsistencies after replacing Nick Harris in the last 11 games. He finished 12th in the AFC in gross punting with 40 yards and 13th with a 33.5 net, and only had nine punts inside-the-20, his specialty.

"The two things we have to get better at are returning kickoffs and punting," Simmons said. "We returned the ball a lot better later in the year, but those are the two things we really struggled doing.

"Kyle knows we have to punt the ball a lot better," Simmons said. "Now we're going to be able to work with him the entire offseason, and that ought to make a big difference. He knows some of the little things he has to work on to get that consistency, and sometimes those things are hard to work on when you just land somewhere in the middle of the season."

Simmons is looking to keep intact the same trio that is responsible for the most accurate field-goal kicking season in club history. Shayne Graham, who made 22 of 25 last season, is a restricted free agent in talks with the Bengals. Long snapper Brad St. Louis just signed a six-year extension, and they are going to give Richardson plenty of chances to keep the punting and holding jobs. P> "You're looking for that same uniform operation," Simmons said.

One common theme Gosselin's rankings show is that successful special teams translate to overall team success. The Super Bowl champion Patriots finished fifth and the runnerup Panthers second, while four other division champions (Philadelphia at No. 1, Baltimore at No. 4, Green Bay at No. 8, and Kansas City at No. 10) finished in the top 10.

"If you're the Bengals, you can't get discouraged abut the final ranking," said Gosselin, who named Simmons the newspaper's NFL assistant coach of the year. "You want to see that quantum leap, and that's what they got. And it's so close the farther you go up the list. You can drop five places with a missed extra point, and they're less than 60 points out of the top 15."

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NEXT:** Coach Marvin Lewis' staff is spending this week evaluating the NFL's potential free agents in anticipation of the market opening the first week of March. Then the coaches head to Indianapolis next week for the scouting combine that gathers to evaluate the top college prospects.

Lewis says his staff's stint as the coach of North in last month's Senior Bowl has cut down on a lot of the legwork involved in getting ready for the draft for about 100 of the players that were in Mobile, Ala., for both teams. But he also says his coaches don't prepare for the combine as much as they work it.

With the success of the all-for-one, under-the-radar Patriots, Lewis is even more convinced character is the major issue during a combine week in which interviews and physicals have become more important than the workouts. Lewis is disappointed with the number of players that no longer work out at the combine, but everyone gets interviewed and examined.

"The only other information I'm looking for (out of the combine) is for the guys that different character flaws and make sure these are pointed out and reviewed," Lewis said.

Maybe one of the more radical changes Lewis instituted last year is his belief that player interviews should be attended by most of the coaches, as well as all the scouts, some front office personnel, and even on occasion Bengals President Mike Brown. Before 2003, the interviews were pretty much done by two people, the coordinator and position coach. Lewis plans to keep the open-room policy next week.

"It gives other people the chance to carry the conversation. You have a player reacting to more things," Lewis said. "Some of the scouts who had interaction with the guy on campus know more about him personally. Maybe it has the player enlighten us a little bit more about himself, about what his goals and dreams are, how he got to where he's at or where he's going instead of the same old stale question from me all the time."

Lewis likes to have guys like strength and conditioning coach Chip Morton and director of player relations Eric Ball in the room for a variety of reasons. Ball can deal with off-field issues while Morton can probe the prospect on his conditioning history, and then both can go back to the respective schools with follow-up questions.

Lewis is mum on which of the Bengals' unrestricted free agents and restricted free agents the team plans to pursue before free agency opens the first week of March, but indications are they have felt out at least four starters before and after the season and probably more. Nothing appears imminent for UFA center Rich Braham, UFA

safety Mark Roman, RFA running back Rudi Johnson, and RFA kicker Shayne Graham, but give time for things to heat up as March comes in like a lion. Historically, most UFAs this close to free agency go on the market to see what numbers are available.

Vern Sharbaugh, Braham's agent, said Monday the team contacted him last week and said it's interested in bringing his client back for an 11th season, but the two sides are still looking for common ground.

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FAN'S EYE VIEW:** For once, Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander was able to watch right tackle Willie Anderson play every snap. A fan invited to last Sunday's Pro Bowl in Hawaii as Anderson's guest, Alexander was most likely the only one in the crowd watching an offensive lineman every play.

He saw quite a show. Working in a PassFest against two defensive ends who have combined for 90.5 sacks in the past three seasons, Anderson blanked the Giants' Michael Strahan and the Rams' Leonard Little. Observers saw Strahan, this year's SackMaster with 18, not even get a sniff of the AFC quarterbacks.

"He played with incredible ease and poise and a great deal of confidence," Alexander said. "He made

it look very, very easy. His pass protection was shut down and his run blocking was tremendous. He got some great movement in there."

Alexander isn't used to watching football from the stands. But as he watched his man work under the broiling afternoon sun, he felt a quiet sense of validation.

"I watched him with a great deal of pride," Alexander admitted. "I can't watch anyone for a whole game when I'm coaching, so this was fun. It affirms what we've known around here. That he's been playing on that level for quite awhile.

"The players already know," Alexander said. "He always has been voted in by them and the coaches and the personnel directors. It's the fan voting he hasn't been able to swing, and the more we win, the better he'll do in that area."

A grade?

"Better than 90 percent," Alexander said. "That's unbelievable in a Pro Bowl."

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