11-17-03, 3:35 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
It figured that Bengals wide receiver Peter Warrick would save his best game in four seasons as a pro for the biggest national media contingent ever assembled at Paul Brown Stadium.
Warrick, the 2000 first-round draft pick who has gone from bust to beast, helped the Bengals on to the national stage Sunday with his 68-yard punt return for a touchdown and his 77-yard touchdown catch within seven minutes of the fourth quarter in the 24-19 victory over the undefeated Chiefs.
"I'm a beast," said Warrick, "when the game is on the line."
Warrick's second punt return TD of his career with 12:47 left in the game bolted the Bengals into a 17-6 lead and rustled the crowd of 64,923 into realizing they had just Dante Halled the Chiefs. It allowed the low-key Warrick to flash that Florida State bravado that is always right below his surface.
He revealed that right before the punt he told fellow wideout T.J. Houshmandazeh, "I'm going to seal it with a kiss." And then he seemed to wink at the media when he said, "(Everyone) was thinking Dante Hall, but it was P. Dub."
But it was quarterback Jon Kitna's bomb to Warrick that showed literally how far Warrick and his offense has come since coordinator Bob Bratkowski arrived in 2001. And got Warrick back on the highlights as part of ESPN's Top Ten Plays of the Week. The 77-yarder is not only the longest catch of his career, but also the longest since he caught a 46-yarder the first game of his career.
"I can go long," Warrick said.
And so can Bratkowski, who is making a lot of second-guessers choke down their words at the water cooler this morning. It would have been a safe time to sit on the lead with 6:24 left, the Chiefs just cutting the lead to 17-12, and the Bengals at their own 23. Instead, the riverboat Bengals, who went for it twice on fourth down last week, went long on the first snap Sunday.
"No question we were going to throw and we were going to be aggressive about it," Bratkowski said. "Actually, we were trying to get it to Chad (Johnson) on a shallow crossing route trying to get a second-and-short, but this shows you where we are as an offense.
"(Warrick's) post (pattern) is on there if it's a specific coverage," Bratkowski said. "We've grown to the point where we can read the quarters coverage going into a play that's going short and Peter and Jon did a great job recognizing it."
Warrick strafed one of the top cornerbacks in the league this season, Eric Warfield, twice. First, he ran past him and made a great over-the-head catch at about the Chiefs 30 with the ball and Warfield straight over his head.
"We have probably run that play 100 times since minicamp, and never have thrown to that receiver (Warrick)," Kitna said. "We were trying to get Chad coming across the middle. We had the right coverage, and Peter did a great job sticking with the ball."
Then Warrick ran out of Warfield's tackle to wake up the echoes of his Florida State days.
" "I was in man-to-man (coverage) and the guy goes up top and starts pulling away inside, and I thought I had a chance at the ball and I went for it and missed it," Warfield said. "So, he made a great play on the ball. He had a great game overall. He had a long rush on the reverse, he had a special teams touchdown, and he had a pass reception touchdown."
It wasn't too long ago that Warrick was complaining about being the smallest tight end in the league and Bengals' fans and media were complaining about the fourth pick in the 2000 draft.
No more. A year after Warrick lost his starting job and had 53 catches for 606 yards, he now has 52 for 578 and had two more third-down catches that will no doubt move him from fourth in the AFC.
And don't forget that first third-down conversion in the second quarter (after the first four failed), when Kitna scrambled out of trouble on third-and-five and Warrick came back to help him for a seven-yard gain that led to the first score of the game.
"Pete has been a better player," said Kitna of the perception of Warrick. "He's had 70 catches (in 2001) and he's played well, we just haven't gotten him the ball enough. He did an unbelievable job sticking with the game plan. You all may have not have a great taste in the mouth about him, but how defenses play tell how well you're doing and ever since the third week of the season, Peter Warrick has been double-covered."
But Warrick saw Warfield come up on him one- on-one and knew.
"Perfect coverage for that play," he said.
No, it wasn't Marvin Lewis who called it.
"That was the offensive coordinator. That was a nice job by Bob (Bratkowski), and the offensive coaches," Lewis said. "That was one heck of a job. I had my back turned until I saw the ball go up in the air. That is a good thing."
The call didn't surprise Kitna, who has been with Bratkowski for seven years now in two cities.
"Not if you know Bob Bratkowski," Kitna said. "He has been waiting to work with a head coach who allows him to be the aggressive play-caller that he is, and Marvin is that. It is almost an oxymoron that a defensive-minded coach allows an offense to be aggressive in a situation like that, but Marvin makes a lot of those calls."
Still, it was his punt return that had his teammates talking. The only time Warrick had returned a punt for a touchdown came against middle linebacker Kevin Hardy's Jaguars in 2000 during one of those Bengal December wins that didn't mean a thing in the standings.
"He did it again and it turned the game around," Hardy said. "That kind of opened the floodgates a little bit. That was huge."
The field wasn't as slippery as that icy day, but it was soggy enough Sunday that there were more grumbles and slipping because the field had worn thin with four games in five weeks. And yet, Warrick negotiated it again.
"That's because he never runs straight," said right tackle Willie Anderson.
Cornerback Artrell Hawkins: "The best returner on the field today was Peter Warrick—plain and simple. He deserves it because he's endured a lot. He continues to make plays, and I think he made a statement today. He is a quality receiver and return guy, and I can't be happier for him. He and Chad (Johnson) are having a great year."
For a long time, Warrick has had to hear his friends back in Florida wonder where the college magic went. Now they know.
"Man," said Warrick, checking his cell phone as he walked out of the locker room, "I got 68 calls."
One for every yard of the punt return that put the Bengals back in first place and Warrick back on the highlights.