Too close to call?

8-17-01, 1:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Bengals receivers coach Steve Mooshagian is fond of telling his players the race for roster spots at their position is kind of like the latest presidential election:

"It changes every day and we've got a couple of Chads (Johnson and Plummer) hanging in there."

But now the (Danny) Farmer vote is beginning to have an impact on a campaign that still has to make a crucial swing through Paul Brown Stadium for the Buffalo and Indianapolis primaries Aug. 25 and 30.

"We need those two games to slot these guys," Mooshagian said. "We could keep five receivers and one on the practice squad. We could keep five and two. We could keep six and none or six and one. It's down to two games."

There are still more questions than answers, but in the past few days Farmer is looking more and more like an absolute while seventh-rounder T.J. Houshmandzadeh is suddenly grinding to stay off the practice squad as he fights a foot bruise.

On Thursday, the team's last workout before bye weekend, Farmer was the fourth receiver in the four-receiver set next to the Set Three of Johnson, Darnay Scott and Peter Warrick in the first team's two-minute.

"It's a good sign," said Farmer, the second-year player who has been spectacular by unspectacularly catching the ball every day, "There's a lot

of talent here. I have to give them reasons not to cut me."

With Warrick, Scott and Johnson the locks, that makes the scramble a what-do-you-like? buffet.

There's Farmer (big, smart, good hands); Houshmandzadeh (big, fast, knows the offense, return ability); Ron Dugans (big, good hands and routes, solid special teams player); Damon Griffin (small, quick); Chad Plummer (big, special-teamer); Craig Yeast (small, quick returner) Malcolm Johnson (big, experienced).

"Farmer has taken advantage of T.J.'s injury in the four-wide package and has done a very good job," Mooshagian said. "T.J.'s very aware of the offense and I don't expect a big falloff when he comes back. Farmer is probably the smartest wideout we have and he's very dependable."

Houshmandzadeh, who has yet to show much from scrimmage and on kick and punt returns, is questionable for the Buffalo game. Club insiders aren't wild about giving a seventh-rounder "a free pass," when there are so many veterans in the fight and Warrick could replace Yeast as a punt returner.

Houshmandzadeh is a practice squad candidate, but players must be waived first before going on that five-man list. There's a good shot another team would pluck Houshmandzadeh off waivers, just like the Bengals did Farmer last year when the Steelers cut their fourth-round pick. Ironically, Farmer also was hampered by a training-camp foot problem with a sore ankle.

Except for an early hamstring pull, the 6-3 Farmer has been the picture of health this summer and he's caught everything but the code red computer virus. They get nervous about his speed and his lack of special teams experience. But then they watch him make a catch in traffic and think about his four-catch, two-minute drill that rescued last season's Jacksonville game and they stop worrying.

"I run a 4.48, 4.49," said Farmer of his 40-yard dash time. He also worked with a speed coach as well as a strength coach back home in Los Angeles over the offseason.

"People joke about it, but I think if you ask the corners, they'll tell you I'm not that slow," Farmer said.

OK, pick one.

"He may look slow, but he's got deceptive speed," said cornerback Robert Bean. "Farmer's a solid player. He's got great hands and if you're not paying attention, he'll run right by you. And he can jump at the goal line and get the ball."

Because he arrived just before last year's regular-season opener, Farmer didn't play special teams until now. He thinks once he does it regularly, he can do it.

But with the Bengals using more three- and four-receiver sets, Farmer's fate may not be tied as much to teams.

"I think this year the fourth receiver is going to be playing a lot more than last year and the guy who has to be more the special teams guy is the fifth guy," Mooshagian said.

"If anybody gets dinged in that three-wide package, Farmer has played all three spots and if he's the fourth guy then he goes right in there."

Farmer, who also played volleyball at UCLA, is a pretty good athlete himself. He looks around and sees all kinds of guys like himself. No slouches.

"I think it's all going to come down to what kind of guys the coaches want," Farmer said, "because we can all play."

Mooshagian is just hoping Buffalo and Indianapolis are more clear cut than Florida.

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