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The Darnay Debate

5-30-02, 3:50 p.m.


After the final whistle of Friday's last voluntary practice of the spring, the Bengals' football people plan to meet at Paul Brown Stadium and mull the roster in anticipation of the NFL's post-June 1 cuts.

No doubt high on their agenda is the Cincinnati future of Darnay Scott, their speed receiver whose clock and wallet continue to be under heavy scrutiny after a season he caught just two touchdowns.

Scott turns 30 in July, which means more than a gag birthday card in the universe of speed receivers. He's fourth on the Bengals' all-time receptions list with 386 catches and of the three guys in front of him (Carl Pickens, Cris Collinsworth, Isaac Curtis) and the one behind him (Eddie Brown), only the incomparable Curtis caught a ball here after the age of 30.

Plus, Scott is scheduled to make $3.2 million this year, which is how much the team would save if he's released at any point. His status is further complicated by the fact the club has no idea about the state of his sore left leg that kept him out of minicamp earlier this month.

Throw in that the once young receivers have picked up this month where they left off in Tennessee back on Jan. 6 and there is much to discuss.

"I think these guys are ready to play. The young guys we have are ready to play," said Bengals President Mike Brown this week as he watched Chad Johnson, the speed receiver of the 21st century, catch a square-out in front of him at practice.

"I would feel comfortable going with them," Brown said. "It is the fact we have some young receivers who are now coming into their prime years. They've been around two or three years and that's long enough to be able to know the ropes."

Quarterback Jon Kitna says Johnson has, "looked tremendous. He's at a different level and speed than anyone else. When he can play at that speed, there aren't many people who can play with him."

And then there is Danny Farmer, whose late-season heroics and terrific May have finally convinced some hesitant coaches that all the kid does is make plays, which Brown thought when he pushed to claim Farmer off waivers just before his rookie season in 2000.

"He's won his acceptance here," Brown said. "The people who weren't enthusiastic about him initially are won over now."

But Scott also has his supporters. After all, the man has 11 career

touchdown catches in the NFL of more than 50 yards. No one else on the Bengals' roster has any. And there are those 386 catches and 36 career touchdowns. The Fab Five of Johnson, Farmer, Peter Warrick, Ron Dugans and T.J. Houshmandzadeh goes into 2002 with a combined 246 catches and 10 touchdowns. Scott's absence has allowed Johnson and Farmer to get much more work at split end and the club is now comfortable with all five playing both sides.

But. . .

"These guys can all play Darnay's spot, but there is no one out there like Darnay physically," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "The guy is a big tall receiver who can run with experience. I was hoping this is the year he goes to the Pro Bowl. Now I don't know because we haven't seen him, but there is still time to accomplish those things."

Bratkowski has been hard on the young receivers, but he hasn't missed a beat in praising them this May. He said all five have progressed with impressive camps.

"This is a smart group that wants to achieve," Bratkowski said. "There's a difference between not being smart and being inexperienced and they had to fight through the inexperience."

The prime example is Johnson, coming off an injury-plagued rookie season. He wasn't the same after making five catches for 68 yards against the Browns on the day he broke his collarbone converting a key third down in a 24-14 win. He missed four weeks and didn't have a five-catch game again.

"It's like a puzzle," Johnson said the other day. "It's like you get one of those 5,000 piece puzzles and you open it. The three things for me are being healthy, knowing the offense, and running better routes."

Receivers coach Steve Mooshagian clocked Johnson at 4.2 seconds in the 40-yard dash during a winter trip to Los Angeles a few months back, but everyone knows he can do that.

"Last year he was pretty much just thinking about the deep ball," Kitna said. "Now he's figured out (the short passes) are where the catches are."

It was Scott, of all people, who showed Johnson the ins and outs.

"Watching Darnay last year taught me a lot about taking advantage of what the cornerback does," Johnson said. "Like last year against a cover 2 on a corner route, I knew the DB would be squatting on me and I would just run right at him. Now I'm taking that sharp angle to the outside and cutting it back inside. The big thing now I can do is read defenses before the snap.

"I've got to take advantage of people respecting my speed," Johnson said. "On those intermediate balls, I should just be playing catch."

Cornerback Jeff Burris, who comes to the Bengals after four years of covering Pro Bowl receiver Marvin Harrison in the Colts' practices, says Johnson has the same traits of flexibility and quickness.

"All the great receivers have that ability to make every route look the same," Burris said. "Just this month he's improved. You can't tell when he's going deep all the time. And he's getting better with his releases off the line. He wants to do well. He's always asking questions."

Remember, Johnson and Houshmandzadeh, his fellow Oregon State rookie, couldn't even be here last year in May because OSU's classes ended in June. So they've had 14 extra practices.

When he arrived at training camp last year, Johnson assured everyone his college offense was a mirror of Bratkowski's playbook.

"But in college, you don't have sight adjustments," said Johnson of what the Bengals ask the receivers to do on a blitz. "Are you kidding me? At Oregon State, they gave you a number and if it was a post, that was it, you ran a post. It's taken me time to get that down, but I think I can do it."

Johnson played just one year of major college ball, so Bratkowski knows there are going to be growing pains. On Wednesday, Johnson ran a route in which he ended up in the same area as running back Corey Dillon.

"He made the right read," Bratkowski said. "But he didn't run the route long enough. He's got a way to go, but he's going in the right direction."

Now the Bengals just have to figure out how far the semi grown kids can take them. With or without Scott.

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