Still kicking

9-8-01, 10:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

How often does it work out like this?

Bengals rookie punter Nick Harris, who leads all Division 1-A punters with career punts and yards, makes his NFL debut Sunday against the man who will lead the NFL in both by the end of the afternoon.

Not only that, throw in the fact Patriots punter Lee Johnson is the only active Bengal left from the 1988 Super Bowl run and holds virtually every Cincinnati career punting record.

Not only that, Johnson returns to Cincinnati for the first time since management took umbrage at his post-game remarks following a loss late in the 1998 season.

And doesn't it seem like ever since then that some sort of "Curse of Lee Johnson," has hung over a struggling Cincinnati special teams?

But Bengals President Mike Brown is rooting for Johnson Sunday and no doubt so will the Paul Brown Stadium crowd with a memory longer than Johnson's two 70-yard punts a month apart in 1990 during the last playoff run.

"Do you think so? I don't know about that. Do you think there'll be a good reception?" Johnson asked last week. "I loved playing in Cincinnati. I thought I was going to retire there. This is my fourth team, but I guess you consider that my team."

So why not set the record for most all-time NFL punting yards against Harris and the team for which he drilled 32,196 of those 49,428 yards? He only needs 43 to tie, which he could do on his first punt of the season.

"Wouldn't it be great if there was an open field and I could just crush it?" Johnson asked. "It would be nice to do it with a big one."

Johnson turns 40 Nov. 27 and nothing has changed. He's still kicking, quipping and testing the market as a stockbroker. Last year in Buffalo he broke Dave Jennings' NFL record for

career punts and comes into the season with 1,163. A total of 746 of those came with the Bengals from 1988-98.

"What it says is longevity," Johnson said. "I don't think you can say it was because I was on bad teams (in New England and Cincinnati) because bad teams have turnovers and you don't get the chances to punt. Longevity is what it means."

Indeed, Johnson had just one 90-punt season with the Bengals (1993) and his two highest after that were 80 and 81 in 1996 and 1997, respectively, during seasons the Bengals won a combined 15 games. In his two seasons with the Pats, he's had 90 and 89 for clubs that won 13.

Now, Brown can't even remember exactly what Johnson said that spurred his release. The Bengals argued then that they cut Johnson because they had a young, talented punter in Brad Costello.

All Johnson knows is that at about the same time the Monday papers hit the street following a 33-20 loss to Buffalo Dec. 6, 1998, he was gone after 11 seasons. Released. He was also fined for the remarks and later settled a grievance with the club.

Before a group of reporters following the game, Johnson wondered why fans would keep buying tickets. Maybe Brown wondered what would happen to a Procter & Gamble employee who asked the same thing about his boss in public.

"When I read what I said in the morning, I knew I was gone," Johnson said. "I wasn't venting. It wasn't said in frustration. I just threw it out there for a conversation.

"How I meant it to come out was that maybe I would run things differently than Mike would," Johnson said. "I didn't mean it to come out ungrateful. Mike and his father have been great to me. They gave me a chance. I feel very bad the way it turned out."

Asked if he would say the same thing today, Johnson said, "Knowing that I would get cut? No way."

But Johnson is still wondering about the Bengals. He was stunned when they cut Daniel Pope in favor of Harris after the final preseason game. Particularly after watching Pope keep Pats punt return ace Troy Brown at bay in Foxboro last season.

"Pope is good. I like Pope," Johnson said. "A veteran guy who really has some hang time. That shocked me."

The Bengals didn't think Pope had the length to boot them out of trouble and they actually hope that Harris turns out to be Johnson as an answer for the next decade. Mike Brown knows they've been looking ever since Johnson left. Harris, Denver's fourth-round pick claimed on waivers, is the highest-rated rookie.

"Anytime you get drafted, you have to be good," Johnson said. "I've heard this guy has a really powerful leg. It just takes time. I struggled my first year or so. The most underrated thing coming out is working with the new ball. In college, you're pretty much using your own ball."

It wasn't the loss of Johnson's punting that seemed to have so much impact on the Bengals. Johnson was the only holder Doug Pelfrey ever had in becoming the NFL's most accurate kicker. At the end of his nightmarish first season without Johnson in 1999, Pelfrey hasn't been back in the league. And Neil Rackers missed nine of his 21 field-goal tries last year as a rookie even being used to Pope.

So naturally the same question surfaces with Harris, who holds for Rackers Sunday after working with him for just 10 days. Johnson admits it's not as bad as '99, when Pelfrey also had a new long snapper.

"It's shame about Pelf," Johnson said. "He should still be there. The guy they had had holding for him (punter Will Brice) had never been on a team. If Nick has done it in college (three years at California), he should be OK. They should be fine, and they've got the snapper (Brad St. Louis) who has been there two or three years. It shouldn't be like it was."

The NFL is funny. Johnson beat out somebody named Brad Costello for the job this year to earn a shot at history.

"I didn't have that great of a preseason," Johnson said. "Brad could have won it if he kicked better in his last game and I kind of sucked it up."

Johnson, who has a few NFL punts and yards on Harris, had some advice for Sunday:

"Don't try to hit the monster ball."

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