Jim Boeheim and the Duke Miracle Play

In anticipation of Saturday’s big Syracuse vs. Duke game at the Carrier Dome (expected to draw 36,000 fans), here’s an old gag involving the two programs from my TV days in Syracuse.

The Love Village

Leave it to a guy who has become famous for his “mean face” to coin an expression for how close-knit the Bearcats basketball team is this year.

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 “We’re a love village,” said Justin Jackson with a grin.

That gave Mick Cronin a big laugh when I passed along Jackson’s comment, but there’s no doubt he would agree.  Cronin says he’s never been closer to his players in 11 years as a college head coach.

“I respect them so much, and they know it, because of how hard they play,” said Cronin.  “That’s what we try to be all about – control what we can control and don’t let other people define us.  They’ve really bought in to that part of what I try to instill in our program more than any guys that I’ve coached.”

But at the age of 42, with more than a decade of head coaching experience under his belt, Cronin has changed too.

“Only a fool would not try to become a better coach every year,” Mick told me.  “With experience hopefully comes a tad bit of wisdom, and also maybe a tad bit of patience.  You understand that the game is not all about you, it’s about the players.  I think the more you make it about them, the harder they’re going to play, the more they’re going to play to win, and the more coachable they’re going to be.  At the end of the day, that’s really what this is all about – their education and helping young people grow up.  Obviously you have to win games and we’re all competitors, but I really think that’s the way to win.”  

“He wants the best out of everybody,” said Jackson.  “That’s the reason why I came here.  You can tell that he wants the best for you – not just in basketball but in being a better person and a better man.  That’s what I wanted to be.”

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One thing I’ve found interesting about this team is how the players react to criticism.  Our broadcasting location is frequently close to the Bearcats bench and even in those situations where Coach Cronin is reading players the riot act, they rarely seem to get upset.

“We all know that it’s his love for the game,” said Sean Kilpatrick.  “For that five seconds that he blows you up, you shouldn’t take it like he’s going to take you out of the game for a long time – he’s trying to teach you.  At the end of the day, he still loves you and he’s going to get his message across.”

“He’s a winner and that just shows how much he wants to win,” said Jackson.  “Every coach has a different way of expressing that.  Some coaches are quiet and some coaches are loud.”

And while TV cameras are drawn to sideline flare-ups, Cronin makes sure to provide plenty of praise as well.

“If somebody makes a bad play, he’s quick to say, ‘Why are great players making bad plays?’” said Kilpatrick.  “If he didn’t believe in us to be great players and take their game to the next level, then he wouldn’t say nothing at all.

“Everyone is happy to come to practice and everyone is willing to play hard.  If you have a coach that’s on you 24/7, you’re probably going to say, ‘Come on, cut me some slack.’  He wants what’s best for you and that’s something that helps us a lot.”

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“They give me great effort and they really care about winning,” said Cronin.  “It’s allowed us to play smart.  When guys are mentally focused and their mind is on winning, it allows you as a coach to make adjustments and it actually makes you look like you know what you’re doing at times.  That doesn’t happen when their minds are not on winning and they’re tuning coaches out because all they care about are individual statistics.  With this group, they want to win and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to win.  They give me great effort – not just physical effort but mental effort as well.”   

As a result, the Bearcats “Love Village” is 19-2 and ranked 13th in the country heading into Thursday’s showdown at #12 Louisville.

“We’re not always pretty, but I think you have to appreciate how much the kids want to win,” said Cronin.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Future Bearcat Posts Quadruple Double

A quadruple double?

Gary Clark (440x330)

Future Bearcat Gary Clark, a senior at Clayton High School near Raleigh, North Carolina, had one on Friday night as he finished with 22 points, 21 rebounds, 15 blocked shots, and 10 assists in his team’s 67-46 win.

“Gary Clark is dominating,” UC head coach Mick Cronin told me.  “From what everybody tells us, he’s probably on track to win Player of the Year in North Carolina – and there are some McDonald’s All-Americans in North Carolina.”

Clark is from the heart of ACC country, and while he reportedly had offers from NC State, Wake Forest, Clemson, Miami, Maryland, and Pittsburgh, he verbally committed to Cincinnati after visiting campus in September.  The 6’7”, 215 pound forward officially committed to UC in the early signing period in November.

“I really loved the guys – they were just awesome,” said Clark.  “And Coach Cronin is a great guy.  The whole coaching staff was really hands on with me and talked with me every day.  I talked to Coach Davis probably as much as I talked with my mom – I love that guy.”

UC associate head coach Larry Davis worked in the ACC for several years at Wake Forest where he famously signed a lightly-recruited prospect that developed into a two-time NBA MVP – Tim Duncan.

“Larry Davis did an unbelievable job identifying Gary early,” said Coach Cronin.  “We put a lot of belief in him early that he was going to be a great player.  Every now and then you can sneak one in on the recruiting guys where they don’t have him ranked nearly as high as he should be for whatever reason – he developed late…he hasn’t been as exposed as other people…whatever the case may be.

“Gary got recruited – NC State is 45 minutes up the road and tried to get him and Pitt was waiting at the airport when he got home from his visit here.  So it’s not like he wasn’t recruited.  But Larry Davis did the best job.  He got in there first and did a great job of developing his relationship with Gary.”

“Gary’s been a relationship guy from the beginning,” said Clayton High coach Denny Medlin.  “I thought that Cincinnati did a good job.  They’ve been here for a couple of years now watching him play and they didn’t feed him a bunch of lines.  In the beginning, Coach Davis came down and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to play harder.’  It kind of made Gary mad to begin with, but at the same time I think Gary has always appreciated honesty.  Gary got better and that helped me out because Gary started playing harder.  And the harder he played, the better he got.  Now he keeps playing harder and harder all of the time, and keeps getting better and better all of the time.”

For the season, Clark is averaging 24.5 points and he recently had a game in which he scored 31 in less than a half in a blowout victory.  The 15 blocks on Friday night tied a career high, while his personal best for rebounds is 24.

“He’s a guy that was vastly underrated for different reasons and probably learned to play a little harder the older he’s got,” said Coach Cronin.  “Some guys develop later than others.”

“He’ll be a four-year guy there and by his junior year in college, he’s going to be really, really good I think,” said Coach Medlin.

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A Lesson From Lefty?

Phil Mickelson visited the wrong locker room.

Mickelson at game (440x247)

The San Diego native was at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday and saw his beloved Chargers stun the Bengals 27-10.  Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com tweeted the above photo of Lefty outside the visitor’s locker room after the game.

But Mickelson would have been the perfect person to address the Bengals after their third straight one-and-done trip to the postseason.

Remember when he was golf’s Marvin Lewis – the guy who could win PGA tournaments but always came up short in major championships?

Or remember when he was golf’s Andy Dalton – the guy who made crucial mistakes in the biggest events because he took unnecessary risks and didn’t execute under pressure?

Mickelson was 0-for-46 in the majors with eight second-place or third-place finishes before finally winning The Masters in 2004.  This past year, he suffered a devastating loss in the US Open only to bounce back a month later to win the Open Championship (British Open).

The choke artist who supposedly didn’t have what it takes to win golf’s biggest events, now has five major championships.

Dalton on run (440x298)

I obviously don’t know if there will be a similarly happy ending for Andy Dalton.  Frankly, it’s impossible not to have doubts after seeing the three turnovers he was responsible for on Sunday.

But I do know that he’s led the Bengals to 30 wins in three seasons, gone to the playoffs every year, and showed considerable improvement this season – particularly in throwing the deep ball.  Like Mickelson, he needs to cut down on crucial mistakes that make it impossible to win.  I disagree with the notion that at the age of 26 Dalton is as good as he’ll ever be.  With a year left on his contract, Andy will get at least one more shot to prove that he can deliver under a white-hot spotlight.

Marvin playoff loss (440x304)

As for Marvin Lewis, he put it best on the Wednesday before the game when he said, “Every time you don’t get what you want, it makes you come back hungrier.  There’s no doubt about it.  You come earlier.  You come harder.  That’s the only way I know how to do it.”

That won’t appease folks who want his head on a platter.  Many cite the Reds’ dismissal of Dusty Baker as the necessary course of action for a team that hasn’t been able to get over the playoff hump.

If the Reds have postseason success under Bryan Price, it will prove to be a wise move.  But that hasn’t happened yet.  Whacking Jack McKeon after the Reds fell from 96 to 85 wins seemed like the right move in 2000.  But the Reds didn’t have another winning season until 2010 (with Baker as manager).  Meanwhile, McKeon won a World Series title with the Marlins in 2003.

Mike Brown stuck with Marvin Lewis when it wasn’t a popular decision in 2010 and the Bengals have been a consistent winner since.  We’ll see if coaching continuity ultimately pays off.

As bitterly disappointed as we all were on Sunday, the Bengals have clearly gotten better over the past three seasons.  They have a deep and talented roster and a drama-free locker room.  And nobody in the NFL will add a better player to its roster next year than Geno Atkins.

So while I understand the skeptics who doubt whether Cincinnati will ever have postseason success without changing coach or quarterback, there was a reminder outside the Chargers’ locker room last Sunday that sometimes those skeptics get it wrong.

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Dalton’s Picks Haven’t Changed Simms’ Pick

Last week on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL,” host James Brown asked the panel to pick a team – other than obvious favorites like Denver or Seattle – that could make a serious Super Bowl run.

Phil Simms picked the Bengals.

“When you look at them, they have guys that can impact the game,” Simms said.  “That’s how I judge teams.  How many stars do you have out there that can win the game for you?  The Bengals have a lot of them.”

That was before Simms was in the broadcast booth for Sunday’s regular season finale against Baltimore.

Marvin Lewis

Cincinnati won 34-17 despite a career-high four interceptions for Andy Dalton.  Did that up-and-down performance cause Simms to reconsider his lofty expectations for the Bengals?

“It brought them up even higher,” Simms told me this week.  “Seeing them in person again and watching them all week and really getting a feel for the football team – I get a very good vibe when I’m around the team.  The players all get along.  They’ve got energy – it’s real.  I think Marvin Lewis has a great feel for the football team and I like the coordinators.  What I saw on the field on Sunday just convinced me even more that maybe for once I might be pretty smart.”

But what about the four interceptions?  Surely that had to concern Simms.

Quite the contrary for the former Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

“I really do believe this:  The fact that Andy Dalton threw four interceptions is a good thing,” said Simms.  “I played the position and when I had those games and threw those interceptions, I was mad all week and by gosh, I was going to show ‘em.  I’ll never forget what Andy said to me before the Chicago Bears game to open the season.  I brought up some of these things about the criticism of the quarterback and he said, ‘I can’t wait for the season to start because I’m going to shut everybody up.’  That was music to my ears.  I said, ‘You tell ‘em where to go Andy.’  You want your quarterback to have a little bit of that in him, and I see it in him.  After throwing those interceptions, I think he is going to ‘bow up’ this week and I think he is going to play well.  We’re going to see a quarterback that is tighter and more efficient and I expect him to play very well.”

Dalton black uniform (440x330)

Dalton’s interception total has gone up in each of his three seasons and this year, only three NFL quarterbacks had more than Andy’s 20 INTs (Eli Manning 27, Joe Flacco and Carson Palmer 22).  But Dalton also posted career highs in every other statistically category and finished third in the league in touchdown passes with 33 (Peyton Manning 55, Drew Brees 39).

“Interceptions will happen if you have an aggressive style of quarterback throwing the ball downfield,” said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.  “We have to maybe pull his reins back a little bit, but the first interception (last Sunday) to Marvin Jones was a great play by the defensive back and that’s a shot we want to take.  It was one-on-one with no safety to be found.  The last interception was one-on-one coverage on A.J. and Andy just underthrew him.  I like where Andy’s at.  I like his anticipation and I like his aggressive style right now.  Obviously we need to rein back his picks, but to do what he did through 16 games and throw as many touchdowns as he did and throw for as many yards as he did is a huge improvement from last year.”

“Quarterbacks are going to throw bad passes – they’re going to turn the ball over, so I don’t overreact to them,” said Simms.  “I hear people say, ‘Just don’t turn the ball over.’  I tell them, ‘Maybe the quarterback should just fall on the ball on every down.  That way they would win because there would be no turnovers.’  You want them to be daring and do this and that, but don’t turn it over.  It’s going to happen, so the criticism is unjust many times.

“I was watching TV this morning and the things they say about quarterbacks – they think they are going to go out there and play perfect games.  It’s ridiculous.”

That’s coming from a quarterback who was nearly perfect in the New York Giants’ 39-20 win over Denver in Super Bowl XXI:  22-for-28 for 268 yards with 3 TD, 0 INT, and the highest passer rating in Super Bowl history at 150.9.

That record-setting performance capped Simms’ third trip to the playoffs.  Dalton goes into his third trip still looking for his first postseason win.

“His presence on the field has grown,” said Simms.  “I think physically he’s grown too, which I think is a really big deal.  He is going to be their franchise quarterback and he’s going to be there for a while.  I think the experience and the fact that he’s physically better – and that he has a better team around him – his chances of winning and doing what everybody wants have gone up dramatically since last year.”

“With such great experience under his belt, he’s gotten better every season, he is the leader of this football team now, he knows what’s expected of him, he knows what’s ahead of us, and we really feel good about where he is right now,” said Marvin Lewis.

“It’s hard to develop quarterbacks,” said Simms.  “The Bengals had a plan, and I give them a lot of credit.  They drafted him, they put him in there, and he’s practiced and played for three years.  They’re seeing those benefits, and it’s time now to march on for the next five or six years – whatever it is – and see how many games you can win and if you can get it done in the playoffs.”

Simms can see for himself.  He’ll be back in the booth at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Bengals Playoff Drought Is Ancient History

As I type these words, it’s been 22 years, 11 months, and 23 days since the Bengals last playoff win.

(That’s 8,393 days but who’s counting?)

Shoot, Giovani Bernard hadn’t even been born yet.

Bengals high five fans (440x291)

But you know what?  That’s ancient history.  These Bengals are one of only six NFL teams to go to the playoffs in four of the last five years and while the current players have little to do with a two-decade dry spell, they are determined to end their own two-year streak.

“Going to the playoffs two straight years and getting beat by Houston was not very fun,” said Domata Peko.  “That’s been sitting on our back for a while, so this year we’ve really been focusing on finishing and trying to get over that first round hump.  I think this team can do it.”

“We need it,” said Rey Maualuga.  “We need it for multiple reasons.  It means respect for ourselves, our fans, and our families from the doubters.  It’s about that time.”

Their confidence is sky-high after ending the regular season with a 34-17 win over Baltimore.  The final score was appropriate because that was the average score at Paul Brown Stadium this year where the Bengals went 8-0.

“I know the history and all that, but we’re here now,” said Michael Johnson.  “We want everybody on the same mentality, the same vibe, and the same focus to get where we’re going.  We’ve got a great team.  Everybody in here believes and we need everybody in the city to believe.  Let’s take this thing all the way.  I mean it.  I believe that in the bottom of my heart and I’m just thankful and happy to be a part of it.”

“Going undefeated at home is one of the goals we set every year and we got it done,” said Peko.  “A big shout out to the 12th man out there – The Jungle.  The whole stadium was rocking and they make it easy for us.

“This is my eighth season and it was by far the loudest that I’ve heard The Jungle.  Even players on the other teams after the games have been saying, ‘Damn – your stadium is pretty loud now.’  And I’m like, ‘Yep.  We’ve been rockin’ over here.’”

Last month, Johnson criticized Bengals fans for booing early in the Cleveland game.  But he was effusive in his praise for the home crowd following Sunday’s win over Baltimore.

“I was very pleased with the attendance and the way they responded to everything,” Johnson told me.  “When it wasn’t going good, nobody got unsettled, nobody booed – they just cheered.  We were able to regroup and they did an amazing job for us – especially on defense on third down and fourth down to help us get big stops.  We were very appreciative and we’re going to need them out in big numbers for the playoffs, because we’ve got big goals and they’re a part of it.”

Green catches TD (440x325)

After ending the regular season by officially eliminating the defending Super Bowl champs, the Bengals are one of 12 teams that still has a chance to succeed them.

“We didn’t want to give the Ravens a chance to sneak into the playoffs,” said Peko.  “We wanted to really go out there and put them to bed.  They won the championship last year – their time is up.  It’s someone else’s turn.  I think it’s our turn.”

“We still have so much more to do and it’s exciting because we haven’t even hit the tip of the iceberg yet,” said Johnson.

It’s time to stop counting the days since their last playoff win and start looking forward to their next one.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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A Season Of Bengals Fun Facts

Each week on the Bengals Radio Network pre-game show, I do a segment called “Fantastic Fun Facts” with a member of the team.  It’s a mini life story of that week’s subject where we get away from the X’s and O’s of football and focus on their backgrounds, families, and interests off of the field.

Here are a few interesting nuggets from the segment this year.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis
BenJarvus Green-Ellis

Here in Cincinnati we’re constantly hearing and reading about city budget battles.  When folks in Minneapolis do that, your mother is right in the middle of it.  Tell us a little about what she does.

She does budget analysis for the city of Minneapolis and works extremely hard at her job.  I’m very proud of her and what she does.  Obviously we both have stressful jobs, so sometimes at night, we vent to each other.  It’s something that I enjoy.  I really love my mom, I love what she does, and I’m proud of her.

So even with that big-time job in Minneapolis, I understand that she’s never missed one of your NFL games – home or away.

No sir.  She hasn’t missed any of my games ever since I was in high school other than one or two games.  For the most part, she’s been to every last one of them.

Josh Johnson
Josh Johnson

How much did you weight as a high school senior?

145 pounds.

Is that the reason why you played college football at the FCS level?

That had something to do with it, not to mention that I was 5’11” and I looked like I was about 10 years old.  I was just a late bloomer.  I got to college and started growing and became a better athlete.  I dunked a basketball for the first time in college, so I was just a late bloomer.

In your final year of college you had 43 touchdown passes and one pick.  What the heck happened on the interception?

It bounced off a guy, went in the air, and it was probably the longest five seconds of my life.  I remember it like it was yesterday.  Not to mention that it was against our rival Dayton – right up the street from here.  That was the only loss we had and cost us a championship.

J.K. Schaffer
J.K. Schaffer

If you could meet anyone in history – living or deceased – who would it be?

My Grandpa Schaffer passed away when I was two years old so I didn’t really know him.  That’s who I would go back and meet now.  I hear from so many people how great of a man he was, and I know the type of man that my father is.  So I would like to go back and meet my grandpa.

Giovani Bernard
Giovani Bernard

What do you like to spend money on?

Shoes.  I think that’s the big thing – I love shoes.  I’ve always liked them.  Michael Jordan…I think a lot of guys nowadays are always buying the Jordans.  That’s my hobby I guess you could say.

How many pairs?

I don’t even want to say.  I’ll keep that off-the-record.

Strictly athletic shoes or dress shoes too?

I’ve got some dress shoes.  I have to move to that side a little bit more now because you want to have appropriate attire.  Being an NFL player, you don’t want to wear off-the-street clothes, you kind of want to be a business person.  So you have to have the dress shoes in your package as well.

Rex Burkhead
Rex Burkhead

You’re from the Dallas suburb of Plano, TX where I understand one of the big tourist attractions is the Southfork Ranch – where J.R. Ewing lived on the TV show Dallas.  Have you been there?

I actually have.  There was a flag football tournament there when I was growing up.  It was called “Let It Fly,” and they actually had it out there in the fields out by the ranch.  We either had a prom or homecoming there as well at one of the banquet halls, so yeah, I’ve been out there.  It’s a pretty cool place.

So you have been to Southfork Ranch and you went to the White House this past April with your friend Jack Hoffman – the 8-year-old cancer survivor who has been an inspiration to so many.  What was your initial reaction when you heard that trip was going to happen?

I was kind of surprised, I guess, but it was very humbling at the same time that his family invited me to come with them.  It was definitely a privilege.  He’s got a great family and to be able to go there is something you never even dream about or think about when you’re growing up.  To actually be able to go to the White House, meet the President, and go to the Oval Office was really cool.

Mike Pollak
Mike Pollak

According to your Arizona State bio, you are an avid guitar player who has written songs.  Fill me in.

I’ve been playing since early in high school and that’s my big off-the-field escape.  I try to play a guitar at least 30 minutes a day.  It helps me unwind, and in the off-season I get together with a bunch of friends and we like to jam a lot.  A lot of guys like to buy cars and jewelry, I collect guitars.

I’ve been treating myself to a new guitar every year, so my wife is kind of getting upset.  It’s taking up too much room in our house back in Arizona, but I haven’t bought one yet this season.

Acoustic or electric?

I have both.  I have a lot of both.  I mostly like to play electric, but now that I have two small kids, I’ve been shifting to more acoustic.

Jayson DiManche
Jayson DiManche

The Bengals brought you in for a visit before the draft and you told me in the pre-season that you could tell at that point that they were really interested.  What was it about that visit that gave you that sense?

They were the only team that flew me in and showed that much interest.  It really made a huge impact on me – especially after the draft when it was time to choose a team.  They flew me in and showed me a nice time and (linebackers coach) Paul Guenther has not only been a great coach to me, but also a great mentor in leading me through the whole process of being a rookie in the NFL.  He’s shown me the ropes along with Vinny, James, and Vontaze – they’ve really been helping me through everything.  Paul has been a catalyst for that and I really appreciate it.  On my visit, he was a huge factor in me coming here.  He’s such a down-to-earth guy and an East coast guy like myself that we just got along.  I knew that if I didn’t get picked in the draft that this would probably be the place for me.  Not to mention that the orange and black matches my high school colors.  I’ve got a lot of stuff that matches.

Brandon Thompson
Brandon Thompson

According to your bio in the Clemson media guide, your nickname there was “Yams.”  Where did that come from?

It started my freshman year.  I was talking amongst the defensive lineman and we were talking about things we liked and didn’t like.  I was a country guy coming in with a southern accent and stuff and I told them that I didn’t like yams and they were like, “Huh?”  So one of the players started calling me that and Tommy Bowden was the coach at the time and he started calling me that.  It stuck and I’ve been “Yams” ever since.

Do they call you that here?

A couple of players fool around and call me that every now and then, but not really here.

George Iloka
George Iloka

You went to Boise State – home of the famed blue turf.  Did you like it?

I loved it.  We went 50-3 in my class so we won a lot of games.  For me it was weird when we played on a green field.  That threw us off.  We were like, “Green…what is this?”  It was definitely fun and if it psyched people out, that always helps.

As legend has it, birds mistake the blue turf for a body of water and dive-bomb to their death.  Is that true?

I haven’t seen one, but I will tell you this.  Ducks naturally want to poop in water, so during some practices there was doo-doo all over our end zone.  So I would say that that part of the myth is true.

Vontaze Burfict
Vontaze Burfict

Your older brother was a college football player and I understand you were the waterboy for his high school team.

Yeah.  He was a receiver but he played pretty much every position.  I really wasn’t into football at that time but I would go to watch him and support him while my mother was at work.  I always favored him to see if he needed water because he was my brother.  I think that made me who I am today because I watched him perform out there and I was like, “Man, I want to be like my brother.”  Any time that he didn’t have practice, he would come throw a ball with me and try to get me to like the sport.  It turned out good because every Thanksgiving we would have a tackling-fest in the grass in our front yard.  We would throw pads on and a helmet and he would always hit me hard and it made me want to hit people hard like he did.  I cherish him for that and always look up to him for that.

Rey Maualuga
Rey Maualuga

You have a lot of tattoos.  Is it addictive?

It is.  They say after the first tattoo you’re going to want more despite how bad it hurts.  After a few weeks of letting it heal, you look in the mirror and want more.  You see tattoos on other people and it makes you think, “Oh man, if I could only have one in that spot on my stomach, chest, or whatever.”  Only time will tell what tattoo I’m going to get next or where on my body that I’m going to get it.  Hopefully when I grow old, they don’t look all wrinkly and bad.

When was the last time that you had a haircut?

The beginning of my junior year in college.  I’ve trimmed it here and there, but it’s been like five or six years since I’ve shaved my hair off.

Dane Sanzenbacher
Dane Sanzenbacher

People that watched the preseason opener against the Falcons where you had a punt return touchdown and caught a touchdown pass heard Jon Gruden sing your praises and say he loves the sound of the name.  But that was not the first time that Jon Gruden has gone crazy over Dane Sanzenbacher.  Going back to ESPN’s Gruden Quarterback Camp with your college quarterback Terrelle Pryor, half of the segment was about you.  What is it about Jon Gruden and you?

I don’t know.  I still haven’t met him to this day.  But that is where it started.  I was watching on ESPN like everybody else.  I was eating breakfast and all of the sudden the segment comes on that is supposed to be about Terrelle.  I don’t know what his fascination is, but it’s probably helped my career more than a lot of things actually.

Clint Boling
Clint Boling

You were a high school basketball player.  What position did you play and what kind of numbers did you post?

I played center and I didn’t stray too far from the paint.  My high school coach had a rule that I could only dribble twice.  That was probably a good thing.  I liked basketball a lot and had a lot of fun.  I would say that I was an average high school player.

Did you average a double-double?

I would say so just because I was so much bigger than everybody else at the time.

Anthony Collins
Anthony Collins

You did not play football until your senior year of high school.  Why not?

I was a basketball player.  I always wanted to play basketball and was on an AAU team so I never had time for football until a couple of my friends went out there and I was forced to play football.  It’s a good thing that I did.

How did they force you?

Some things happened and a couple of my teachers and the principal told me that I had to (play football) or they would have to call my mother about some things.  That was an easy decision because my momma don’t need to know anything negative.

Mohamed Sanu
Mohamed Sanu

Your mother ran for parliament last year in Sierra Leone right?

Yes.  Unfortunately, she didn’t get elected but she works very hard and the people in her community love her.  She does so many things for her community and felt like she would be a good voice for them.

You have her name tattooed on your chest.  Did she know that you were going to do that?

She didn’t know until after I did it.

What was her reaction?

She’s not a big fan of tattoos, but when she saw that her name was on my chest, she was pretty excited about it.

Devon Still
Devon Still

You grew up in Wilmington, Delaware.  The so-called “first state” for being the first one to ratify the Constitution.  When you tell people that you’re from Delaware, do they have any idea where it is?

No.  Whenever I tell anybody that I’m from Delaware they always say that I’m the first person that they’ve ever met from there.  Then they ask me where it is.  My response is that they need to pay more attention in geography because as you said, we’re the first state so everybody should know where we’re located.

Vice President Joe Biden is from Delaware.  Have you ever crossed paths with the V.P.?

I haven’t, but hopefully that day is coming soon.

Alex Smith
Alex Smith

Every year at the Super Bowl, they have something called the Madden Bowl where NFL players compete at the video game.  You are a two-time champion.  Have you – a proud Stanford grad – actually wasted a lot of your time playing Madden?

Unfortunately.  When I told you that I wasn’t paying as much attention to my economics classes (at Stanford) as I should have been, it was because of Madden.  I still dabble every now and then, but definitely not as much as I used to.  I have kids now and I’m getting a little older so it seems like the days go by a little faster.  But going out to those Madden Bowls was always fun.  Of course, they retired me after I won too many times.  I still peek in and see who is winning.

What does the Madden Bowl champion receive if anything?

A trophy and bragging rights.  That’s pretty much it.  I’ve got a couple of trophies sitting in the house and I’ve been able to tell everybody that I’m the Madden Bowl champ.  Because of that, everybody thinks they can beat you and wants to play you, so that definitely comes along with it too.

Tyler Eifert
Tyler Eifert

When Brian Kelly wanted to motivate you at Notre Dame, what buttons did he push?

He would just coach me and tell me what I needed to do.  He wasn’t big on yelling at me or things like that – not that he wouldn’t.  All you have to do is tell me what to do and I’ll try to do it.

What gifts did the Notre Dame players get for playing in the BCS Championship game?

We got a gift card from the university with some money on it and then we got to go to a gift suite.  But they didn’t send us the gifts that we picked out which was a little surprising.  They sent us like a cheaper version of them.  I wonder if the winners got them?  I guess that’s what you get when you lose.  It’s all good though.  I’ll take what they gave me.

Margus Hunt
Margus Hunt

Who was your favorite athlete growing up?

His name is Virgilijus Alekna and he’s a Lithuanian discus thrower.  I actually was able to work with him in 2007.

Is he famous in track and field circles?

Oh yeah absolutely.  He’s a two-time Olympic winner and a two-time world champion – just an absolutely tremendous discus thrower.

What were some of your favorite places to travel during your track and field career?

China was really great.  Turkey was unbelievable – it’s a crazy culture over there.  South Africa is an absolutely beautiful place.  Spain is really cool as well.

For the final game of the regular season vs. Baltimore, Bengals owner Mike Brown will be my guest.  Among other things, we’ll discuss childhood memories of his father’s great Cleveland teams, the summer he worked for George Steinbrenner, and the Bengals loss that hurts the most.  Hope you tune in on Sunday morning at 11:30.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Bengals Provide Emphatic Answer To Critics

Normally in the NFL, a 9-5 record and a one-game lead in the division is worthy of praise.  But after laying an egg in Pittsburgh on Sunday Night Football last week, the Bengals were called “pretenders,” “frauds,” and worse.

Steelers tackle Jones (375x440)

“You’re playing against a 5-8 team and get embarrassed on national television,” said NBC analyst Rodney Harrison.  “I was very disappointed but it just shows you that this is a very talented team but they’re not a mentally tough team.”

Those words and others like them did not sit well in the Bengals locker room.

“It’s all perception,” Michael Johnson told me.  “You’ve got to look at the actual numbers.  People that really understand football understand what happened.  If you pay attention and really know what you’re talking about and aren’t just popping off blowing steam, then you see what happened.”

The first quarter in Pittsburgh was an aberration.  A dropped snap by punter Kevin Huber on a frigid night handed the Steelers seven points.  The first punt return touchdown allowed by the Bengals in more than two years gift-wrapped seven more.  And an unintentional fair catch by Cedric Peerman helped give Pittsburgh the ball at the Cincinnati 47-yard line, leading to the Steelers longest touchdown drive of the night.

“We had some bad things happen to us early in the game in Pittsburgh that are unfortunate,” said Marvin Lewis.  “The breaks that fell their way put us behind.  That’s what happened.  That one’s over.  Everybody thought the sky had fallen in.  It didn’t fall in yet.”

“That was just one of those games that just got away from us early,” said Chris Crocker.  “We didn’t give ourselves a chance to really compete and that’s not usually how we play.  It was just one of those games.  The way to make yourself feel better is to win.  That’s really the only remedy.”

Bernard vs Vikings (440x336)

The cure for what ailed everyone in Bengals Nation was Sunday’s 42-14 thumping of the Vikings.  Cincinnati dominated everything that didn’t involve Minnesota’s spectacular rookie Cordarrelle Patterson to remain undefeated at home.

“All week I was saying that the intensity had picked up,” said Wallace Gilberry.  “The fire was re-lit.  I’m not saying that we deserved that loss against the Steelers, but we definitely needed it.  It put things in perspective and it woke me up and woke up other guys that needed it.”

“No one in here panicked,” said Johnson.  “No one in here was worried.  We came in and regrouped and you see the result.”

Cincinnati’s win plus Baltimore’s loss to New England clinched the AFC North for the Bengals.  But that’s only the start of what they hope to accomplish.

“We’ve got all our eggs in the basket now,” said Coach Lewis.  “That’s what we started out to do.”

“Anytime you get to the postseason it feels really good,” said Crocker.  “Because once you get there, anybody has a shot at the ultimate goal.”

For Michael Johnson, that makes four playoff appearances in the five NFL seasons.  The Bengals are one of only five teams to accomplish that feat (Saints could make it six).

“It’s what I’ve expected since I was drafted here,” Johnson told me.  “I heard a lot of negativity on draft day and the weeks to follow, but all I knew was to come in and work as hard as I could and try to get better.  We have a lot of talented players here and everybody is doing a great job of stepping up and taking ownership of what we’re trying to do around here.  If just feels good to be a part of it.”

Last January, Johnson returned to school at Georgia Tech in hopes of earning his degree.  The 26-year-old defensive end is still a few credit hours short, but he did not sign up for classes this year.  Instead, he’s got a trip to the Meadowlands planned for early February.

“I’ve got big plans baby,” said Johnson.  “Big plans.  Come with me.”

And don’t jump out of the plane when it hits a little turbulence.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Hall Of Fame Praise For Bengals O-Line

Andrew Whitworth went to the Pro Bowl at left tackle last year and has been among the NFL’s best at the position for years.  But the best left tackle in history says that Big Whit is even better at guard.

“Andrew has had a great career here, but I cannot remember a time where he has physically dominated defensive lineman the way he has at the left guard position,” said Anthony Munoz.  “I’m loving it.  I’m watching him dominate straight ahead.  And I love him dancing around on the power (play).”

Dalton Whitworth (440x367)

Munoz was in the broadcast booth for ESPN Radio during last Sunday’s win over the Colts and says that watching Whitworth reminded him of the guy that lined up next to him during the 1980’s.

“Max Montoya was probably one of the best pulling guards that I’ve ever seen – and not only because I played with him for 10 years,” said Munoz.  “Max had a knack at 300 pounds to pull and cut down any defensive backs that were out in front of him.  I see Andrew – everybody sees his size and his strength and how well he’s played at tackle – but man, the guy has a sense, he has that football awareness to pull around and unload on people.  That takes a lot for a guard because you’re pulling around a lot of confusion.  You’ve got your center and your other guard and sometimes the tackle, so you have to be able to do it physically, but you have to be able to have sight of what you’re going to hit.  He does it as well as I’ve seen in a long time.”

The Bengals were forced to move Whitworth from tackle to guard two weeks ago vs. San Diego when Clint Boling went down with a season-ending knee injury.  Cincinnati wound up rushing for 164 yards – one off its season high.

“He was a little bit of Babe Ruth out there,” said offensive line coach Paul Alexander.  “He was hitting home runs and he was striking out a little bit.  When he hit people he freaking knocked ‘em out.”

The Bengals stuck with the combination of Whitworth at guard and Anthony Collins at tackle last week and rushed for 155 yards in the win over Indianapolis.

“The running game over the years has been pretty good, but I believe right now that it’s as good as it’s been in a long time with the Law Firm and Giovani Bernard,” said Munoz.  “For me to see that little pitch with the guard and tackle pulling out – those are things we used to do not only in college but with the Bengals.  We used to run that with Max Montoya leading James Brooks around the corner and it’s great to see that again.  And not only doing that, but then they’re lining up and running the power and just pounding people.”

“I call it the WWE – the WhitWorth Effect,” said former Bengal Artrell Hawkins.  “An offense has to have something to hang its hat on.  And real confidence comes from knowing that what you do works.

“It’s like a runaway locomotive.  They’re so physical that there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

“Andrew Whitworth is overpowering people,” said my broadcasting partner Dave Lapham.  “He’s such a catalyst from a physicality standpoint because that stuff becomes contagious.  Honestly, he’s made (center) Kyle Cook’s life better.  When Kyle is double-teaming with Andrew Whitworth it’s an easier sled that working with Boling.  That’s nothing against Boling – he’s just not as big and powerful of a drive blocker as Andrew Whitworth.”

Is Big Whit enjoying playing guard more than tackle?

“I think that depends on your personality,” Whitworth told me.  “If you’re a guy that wants finesse and wants to play basketball a little bit, then you enjoy tackle.  But if you’re a guy that loves to be physical, and hit people, and be violent, then you probably like playing inside.  I love both of ‘em, but I think guard probably suits my personality.”

Of course, it would be impossible to move Whitworth to guard if Anthony Collins wasn’t doing the job at tackle.  According to ProFootballFocus.com, Collins has been on the field for 193 passing plays this season without allowing a sack.  He would be PFF’s top-rated pass-blocking left tackle if he had enough snaps to qualify.

“I had a chance to actually be at a workout with A.C. when he hadn’t even been drafted yet out in Arizona,” said Munoz.  “One of the first things I saw was how athletic he is.  I’ve always been impressed with his athleticism and his ability to move.  I always thought that maybe he could be a little stronger, but I’ve always thought highly of A.C.”

“I’m going to be interested to see how Anthony Collins holds up against bull-rushers,” said Lapham.  “Pittsburgh will bull-rush you and that is the only fly in A.C.’s ointment.  Speed rushers he eats alive.  The guy’s got tremendous feet and takes great angles.  He can get that extra kick step and frustrate the speed guys that want to get on the edge.  That’s basically what (Indy’s) Robert Mathis was trying to do.  The first guy that comes in and tries to bull-rush him…it’s going to be interesting to see how A.C. holds up.”

Marvin Lewis is notoriously reluctant to change the depth chart issued early in the week to the media unless it’s absolutely necessary, but going into this week’s game in Pittsburgh, Collins is listed as the starter at tackle with Whitworth at guard.

“I would not change anything for the rest of the season,” said Lapham.  “I would not change one iota of what’s going on up front.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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James Harrison on returning to Pittsburgh, the meaning of intimidation, and more

On Wednesday afternoon, Marvin Lewis referred to James Harrison as a “very respectful bully.”

“He’s going to be gruff about everything he can be,” said Lewis when asked to clarify.  “That’s his fun.  We spend a lot of time together and guys have to have fun.  That’s his fun.  To always be on edge – to keep people on edge.

“He’s had an exceptional career.  You can’t take anything away from James Harrison’s career.  He’s won, he’s been a great player, and he helped a team win championships.  Guys like that eventually end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”

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Harrison’s upcoming return to Pittsburgh for the first time since leaving the Steelers is one of the big storylines this week.  And yes, the five-time Pro Bowler and 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year kept me “on edge” in this one-on-one interview for Sunday’s pregame show on the Bengals radio network.

This is your first trip back to Pittsburgh.  Is it going to be emotional for you?

No.

Not at all?

No.

Why not?

I’ve already had a chance to see those guys here, so it’s going to be no different seeing them there.

Before that first game you got a little choked up talking about Dick LeBeau.  What is it about that relationship that meant so much to you?

He’s more of a father figure than he is a coach.  He has a real tight bond with a lot of us players – former and present.  He’s not just a coach.

You were in for 87% of the defensive snaps last week.  Are you happy with the way your role on this team is evolving?

Yeah, it’s a good thing.  I’m starting to get a chance to get out there more, learn more of the defense, and get an opportunity to play a little more.  That’s part of getting comfortable.

This team has lost a lot of key pieces on defense and yet you’ve continued to play at a very high level.  How have you done it?

Each guy that is behind a starter we call a “starter in waiting.”  When he gets his opportunity due to the misfortune of somebody else, he’s got to come in there and step up.  We want him to play to the level – if not better – than the person that he’s replacing.  Right now I think we’ve got guys that are stepping in and continuing to play at a high level.

You’re an Ohio guy who played in Pittsburgh for a long time – how do you feel about December weather?

I like December weather.  I’m used to it, so it’s no big deal.

This team is two games up with three to go in the division race.  How do you avoid looking beyond this week?

It’s simple – you don’t.  Nobody looks beyond this week.  We’re playing the Pittsburgh Steelers and that’s our focus.  I couldn’t even tell you who we play after that.

You’re in the first year of a two-year deal with the Bengals.  Do you think you’re going to be playing beyond next year?

I don’t know.  We’ll see how my body feels.

How does it feel right now?

It’s alright right now.  I’m not having to do too much with it.  It’s getting to be where I’m getting opportunities to be out there a little more and I’m liking it.  My body is feeling fine.

Is this team what you expected it to be, or are the individuals in this locker room different than you anticipated?

Nothing was expected other than I thought that I was coming to a team that could contend for a championship and that’s what I’ve got.  That’s what we have right now and that’s what we are going to continue to strive to do.

Last year’s Bengals/Steelers game in Pittsburgh was one of the more physical ones that I recall watching.  Is that what we should anticipate this Sunday?

I think every game is going to be a physical game just because we’re in it.  So yeah, I would expect a physical game.

I think when you signed with Cincinnati, a lot of folks wondered if you would add “swagger” to the defense.  Do you think you have?

I don’t know.  You would have to ask them.

What does the word intimidating mean to you?

It means nothing because I’m not intimidated by anything.

Do you think you intimidate others?

You would have to ask them.

I find you a little intimidating from a reporter’s standpoint.  Do you like to give that image?

It’s not an image that I’m trying to give off.  I guess it’s just my natural body presence.

Do you think there’s a misconception about your image?

There’s a misconception about a lot of people’s images.  If you see a person on TV and all you get fed is a certain image than you’re going to believe it.  So for people who don’t know me and just know of James Harrison the football player – yeah they’ll believe it.  But for those who know me, understand me, people that I love and love me, they have a whole different image of me.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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