7-27-02, 8:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski arrived here at training camp brandishing the ultimate challenge to a position group when he declared that any of his six wide receivers from last year could line up at as the two starters on Opening Day.
"They will all be pushed. Nothing is etched in stone," Bratkowski said of his sometimes brilliant, sometimes maligned, and always interesting receiving corps.
"We need to find people we can count on and trust in clutch situations," Bratkowski said. "We didn't have a go-to-guy last year and the quarterback needs to know that a guy is going to run the right route at the right depth in the right spot and that he'll make the play for him. Our quarterbacks need to have a guy they can count on. I don't know who that guy is going to be."
The edict is so sweeping that even the team's leading receiver last season with 70 catches, Peter Warrick, doesn't have a starting spot locked up. Warrick had one touchdown catch last season and the other starter, Darnay Scott, had just two and in Bratkowski's mind, those weren't exactly go-to numbers.
"If we have somebody who emerges as a go-to-guy who most of the time makes the big play in a big situation, that person could push Peter Warrick out of his spot. We hope it is Peter Warrick because he's a wonderful talent. We're looking for consistency from him and everyone else."
Some would say that guy is Danny Farmer because he's mistake-proof and drops a pass about once every other paycheck. But he hasn't been able to stay healthy and once again he's shelved until maybe mid-August with a hamstring problem. Instead of pushing guys these days, he's doing pushups any time a receiver drops a pass, has a false start, or fumbles.
So you know the receivers had a better day Saturday than they did Friday because Farmer did just 270 pushups compared to Friday's first practice of 360. The best day belonged to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a big (6-1, 197 pounds) second-year guy who can run and is seen in some club circles as maybe the most reliable wideout next to Farmer. It will be recalled he caught nine balls for 98 yards in the Dec. 30 comeback win over Pittsburgh in which quarterback Jon Kitna completed three of six passes just to him in the final drive.
"I don't buy that," said Houshmandzadeh when told everything is up in the air at the position. "I don't even want to talk about that because I don't want to say something that might offend someone. I'm a competitor and I
think I'm the best. There may be some that think that and maybe some that don't, but that's how I see it."
Warrick has been frustrated by his lack of down-the-field chances and although he realizes there is some major competition at his spot ("That' s the way it is everywhere except running back"), he is again sounding the call to be used differently. And maybe not always in the slot.
"How many slot receivers go to the Pro Bowl?" Warrick asked. "Switch it up sometimes. Just don't give me something short 24 and 7. I'll play the slot. I just want to play. Just give me the rock."
The 5-11 Warrick is the Bengals' only receiver under six feet and he's not as fast as Michael Westbrook, Chad Johnson, or Houshmandzadeh, but they feel like he can be a dangerous player if he develops more consistency catching.
"He looks good and he's catching on to the system," Bratkowski said. "He even corrected me (Saturday) on a motion play. He's done a good job catching the ball."
He's working at it. He closes each workout by running two different routes each time with Kitna and says, "Two reps. That's all you might need."
Bratkowski admitted there have been an inordinate amount of drops the past two days, but since Saturday was better than Friday, he hopes that is out of their system. And there were flashes Saturday:
Ron Dugans caught a pass in traffic and earned hearty vocal praise from Bratkowski. It had to be music to the ears of another player who is considered extremely reliable but has wallowed behind bigger names and higher draft picks. Bratkowski thinks Farmer and Dugans have the potential to push Warrick.
But with Farmer down, Dugans and other are getting more reps. Receivers coach Steve Mooshagian said they are pretty much getting looks in just one or two spots because, "we've got so many more multiple formations this year compared to last year that we don't want to bounce everyone around in one spot."
So the Bengals are pretty much using Warrick and Dugans exclusively in the slot while Houshmandzadeh and Johnson rotate at split end and flanker on the outside while they leave Westbrook at split end so he just has to learn one spot in the new system.
But it boils down to one thing. Finding Mr. Reliable. Scott, now in Jacksonville, averaged 92 yards in the Bengals' six victories, but Bratkowski never saw him as that guy. Probably because as good as he was in the wins, you couldn't find him in the losses.
"We've got to have a guy emerge," Bratkowski said. "If you fall down in a clutch situation, well, go-to-guys don't fall down. They don't drop the ball on third down or run the wrong route in a crucial situation. Those are the things we're working to eliminate."
It's early, but Aug. 23 is around the corner.
"That kind of consistency you find out over the long term, not in one or two practices," Bratkowski said. "All the guys we had here last year have a chance at being that guy. By the end of camp, we hope someone emerges."