8-14-01, 3:45 P.M.
Updated: 8-14-6:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ The day after severely spraining his ankle, backup veteran free safety Darryl Williams said Tuesday he'll be back in less than six weeks.
"I'm not thinking longer than that," said Williams, who has missed just three games in nine seasons. "You've got to be positive. God's will, I'll be back sooner. (Six weeks) that's a normal person. Hopefully I'm a little different than most people and I'll heal a little quicker."
But with the Bengals not knowing if the partially torn ligaments in Williams' left ankle will take six, or eight, or possibly more weeks to heal, these are the few absolutes after taking to the practice field Tuesday:
_Tremain Mack is learning both safety spots as the possible first player off the bench behind Cory Hall at strong and Chris Carter at free.
_Second-year cornerback Mark Roman is starting to walk through some alignments at safety as a possible swing player.
_JoJuan Armour, a third-year former college linebacker who has virtually not taken a regular snap at safety in a NFL game, is the man on the depth chart replacing Williams' 141 career games.
_With cutdown day on Sept. 2 and safeties seemingly always knocking around, the answer may be in another training camp right now like Carter was last year. Carter, a returning starter in New England, was waived during final cuts by new Patriots coach Bill Belichick and picked up by the Bengals and moved ahead of Williams this year on the depth chart.
"We're thinner there than we want to be," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel. "But with Darryl's ankle being sprained and not broken, it's hard to tell if and when he'd be back. We do know he won't be ready for the opener unless he's Lazarus."
Defensive coordinator Mark Duffner is one of the guys praying heavily. If Williams is a quick healer, one option is the Bengals
could go with the plan of keeping nine defensive backs for the Sept. 2 cutdown and make Williams one of them. Then in the first two or three games or so of the season, Williams would be the inactive player because not all nine DBs would dress for games.
But with Williams getting his ankle checked again in the next 24 hours, who knows when his partially torn ligaments could heal? As Duffner said of Armour, "It's unfortunate to lose a player of Darryl's intelligence, experience, and a guy who has class written all over him. But it's fortunate for JoJuan who is now going to get more snaps and that's what he needs as a guy learning a new position."
The Bengals like Armour and his pedigree as a two-time conference defensive player of the year at Miami of Ohio. They just don't know where to play him. They like him on special teams, but his free-lancing aggressiveness scares them at the last line of defense.
Still, after spending the spring playing safety for NFL Europe's Barcelona Dragons, Armour looks and feels more comfortable back there. He's been encouraged by the fact the Bengals are toying with something called the "Dragon Package," which features his athleticism and quickness in honor of helping Barcelona to the World Bowl.
"Even before Darryl got hurt, I was thinking I was going to make the team," Armour said. "I always go in optimistically. Just getting more reps in Europe has been big for me. It was the first time I played a full game since college."
If the Bengals keep nine defensive backs, Armour would be on the bubble. But Williams' injury, Armour's versatility and his special teams talents are going to force people to take a long look at him at safety.
"I have questions about his ball skills and how he breaks on the ball," Lippincott said. "But I like the commitment he showed going to Europe. And he's fast, he's athletic, he's got some pass-rush skills, and he's willing."
And he's here for now.
"I think they want me here," Armour said. "They've done enough things and showed me enough things that I really think they want me here."
Other options for Williams aren't so good for either side. The Bengals could gain a roster spot by putting him on injured reserve and losing him for the rest of the season. Or they could try and reach an injury settlement with him and risk losing him to another team before he could return in 10 weeks.
What they will no doubt do is wait to see how the ankle heals. After Tuesday morning's magnetic resonance imaging test confirmed the partial tears, Williams was back here at Georgetown College Tuesdsay afternoon looking to get started on his rehab.
"I don't have any say in it," Williams said. "They're going to do what they have to do. All I'm saying is I'm trying to get healed as soon as possible."
Williams said the injury occurred when he got tangled with wide receiver Malcolm Johnson while the Bengals were practicing without pads.
"I never saw it coming," Williams said. "I guess (linebacker Steve Foley and tight end Marco Battaglia) were tied up and ended up on the ground and I think I got leg whipped. Wrong place, wrong time."