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Sanders Has Earned Respect Of Teammates And Coaches

In numerous stories about the health issue that’s kept him off of the Bearcats bench this season, head coach Mick Cronin has singled out one player on the Cincinnati roster.

“This is about Jermaine Sanders – he’s our lone senior,” Coach Cronin told Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News.  “That’s the hardest part of this for me.  I’m really close to him.

“So not being able to coach him, it just sucks.  I don’t have a better adjective.”

Jermaine Sanders black jersey

Sanders saw that comment and others like it and appreciates Cronin’s thoughtfulness.

“I was proud that he felt that way,” Sanders told me.  “It’s kind of sad for me that he hasn’t been able to coach me for the final games of my senior year.  It was heartwarming to hear that from him.”

Jermaine Sanders came to Cincinnati as a high-scoring high school star, earning Player of the Year honors in New York City from the New York Post.  But as a Bearcat, he’s been a classic “glue guy” playing solid defense while being unselfish on offense.   

“The one thing that you know about Jermaine is that he’s going to do all of the little things that help you win,” said associate head coach Larry Davis.

“It was a hard adjustment at first,” said Sanders.  “Coming from high school where you’re depended on to score 20 to 30 points a night and then when you get here you try to score when you can but you’re counted on to do things defensively and stuff like that.  But everything happens for a reason and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I’m not ashamed to say that I was a glue guy while I was here.

“I always want to put other people before me – sometimes that may hurt me – but that’s just the way that I am.”

Jermaine Sanders (440x266)

Sanders is quiet by nature, but as the only remaining senior on the roster, he’s been thrust into a leadership role on an inexperienced team.

“Of all of the players on your team, the seniors are always the most determined guys because this is the last time they’re going to be playing in a Cincinnati uniform,” said Davis.

“I’ve taken it very seriously and tried to show the guys the way we need to play and the way we should act on and off the court,” said Sanders.  “I’ve tried to be a good example for the younger guys.”

One of those younger teammates is Shaq Thomas who thinks so highly of Sanders that he chose Jermaine to be his daughter’s godfather.

“He’s my best friend and we’ve been through a lot together,” said Thomas.  “I just want to see him do well.”

The same is true for Cronin.

“Jermaine Sanders is everything that’s good about college basketball,” Mick told me.  “He has been all about the program and he has been a selfless player.  And he’s such a good person that I want success for him so badly because of his loyalty to the program.  When he plays well I’m so happy.

“It’s his senior year and he’s always going to remember it.  I feel guilty that I’m not out there coaching him.”

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Four Key Offseason Additions For Bengals

After spending Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine, I am prepared to describe four key players that the Bengals anticipate adding to the roster next season.

  1. A sideline-to-sideline tackling machine at linebacker with a high football I.Q. Plays with an attitude. Prone to excessive penalties. Possible concussion concerns.
  2. A fluid receiver with the ability to stretch the field. Makes tough catches in the red zone. Ideal complement to pair with A.J. Green.
  3. An elite pass-catching tight end. Stands 6’6” with long arms. Has size to beat defensive backs and speed to beat linebackers. Must continue to improve as a blocker.
  4. A road-grading right tackle with surprisingly nimble feet. Must keep an eye on weight.

Those players are Vontaze Burfict, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, and Andre Smith.

Bernard at combine (440x293)

Don’t get me wrong, Cincinnati will undoubtedly add an immediate contributor or two (maybe more) in this year’s draft.  The Bengals are on a run of six straight productive drafts as they’ve placed at least one player on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team in every season.

2014: Jeremy Hill

2013: Giovani Bernard

2012: Kevin Zeitler

2011: A.J. Green

2010: Carlos Dunlap, Clint Stitser (not a stellar group of rookie kickers apparently)

2009: Quan Cosby (as a punt returner)

But regardless of who the Bengals add in the draft, it’s hard to imagine that any of the rookies will have a bigger immediate impact than the return of Burfict, Jones, Eifert, and Smith – assuming that they’re healthy.

Burfict is recovering from the most serious injury after having microfracture surgery on his left knee.  Marvin Lewis told reporters at the Combine that he expects the Pro Bowl linebacker to be back on the field this season.

“Vontaze is working his tail off in rehab and it’s an important offseason for the Cincinnati Bengals and Vontaze Burfict together,” Lewis said.  “He’s one of our dynamic players and he’s a dynamic leader.  We’re a better team with Vontaze on the field, so we hope to get him back full speed and healthy as quick as we can.  It’s important.  He knows the importance of it for us, for him, and for his career.”

Marvin at combine 2015 (440x294)

Coach Lewis added that Jones and Eifert are on good recovery timetables as they return from ankle and elbow injuries respectively.

“(Jones) is fine, healthy, and he’s ready to go,” said Lewis.  “He’s got a lot of prove.  It’s an exciting time for us.  He’s a young player with a lot of ability, a lot to prove, and a lot on the line.  I like guys with a lot on the line.

“Tyler’s development, if you are familiar with him, was a little bit retarded this year because he was injured nine plays into the season.  He’s doing well.  It’s important that we get Tyler back and productive in his third season for us.”

Adding Jones and Eifert to an offensive that includes Green, Hill, Bernard, and Mohamed Sanu would give Andy Dalton as many offensive weapons to distribute the ball to as nearly any quarterback in the NFL.

Two years ago with minimal injuries among running backs and receivers, Dalton set franchise records for single season passing yards (4,293) and touchdown passes (33).  However, he also threw a career-high 20 interceptions.  His INT total dropped to 17 last year, but his rate per attempt slightly increased.

“We’ve got to get Andy to continue to take care of the football all of the time,” said Coach Lewis.  “He doesn’t have to feel pressed.  We know the next down is coming.  The one area where we weren’t quite as good this year was protecting the football.  We have got to do a better job of that.  There were times where he became a little impatient and his patience has to continue to grow.

“To be a productive NFL quarterback, we want that interception number to be down.  That’s the most important thing.  There are going to be some interceptions that happen.  There are going to be some balls that go off hands that are tipped, and so forth.  But the ones that he is directly responsible for – we want to make sure that that number is almost non-existent.”

Over the last four seasons, the Bengals are 40-23-1 despite playing in one of the toughest divisions in football.  That’s the sixth-best record in the NFL during that period behind New England, Green Bay, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle.  Despite their playoff failures, the Bengals roster is good enough to contend.

But it’s hard to overcome a rash of injuries that wipe out entire position groups as the Bengals had at times last year at wide receiver and linebacker.

“When you get a lot of injuries at one position, your depth is non-existent,” said Lewis.

That’s why the return of Burfict, Jones, Eifert, and Smith is so important.  It allows the Bengals not to draft for need but to continue their highly-successful approach – particularly in the early rounds – of taking the highest-rated player regardless of position.

“We want to upgrade the football team in general so there’s not one area,” said Lewis when asked about draft priorities.  “We have to upgrade every area.”

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

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With Rivalries Disappearing, Cherish The Crosstown Shootout

There has been a lot of realignment in college sports in recent years and it hasn’t been good for traditional rivalries.

My Alma mater – Syracuse – no longer plays Georgetown every year in basketball.

The Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia is no more.

The so-called Border War between Kansas and Missouri is history.

Closer to home, after 99 meetings in basketball, Cincinnati and Louisville don’t currently play each other.

After 160 meetings, Xavier and Dayton don’t square off.

The bottom line is, if your school still has a great rivalry – cherish it – and there is no rivalry quite like the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout.

Crosstown Shootout logo

It is the best intra-city rivalry in college basketball.  Two outstanding schools – just 3 miles apart – that happen to have two of the best programs in the country.

Cincinnati is one of only 16 schools that have been to the NCAA Tournament each of the last 4 years.  In its history, UC has made 6 trips to the Final Four and won 2 NCAA titles.

Xavier is one of only 13 schools to go the NCAA Tourney in 8 of the last 9 years and the Musketeers have made 5 trips to the Sweet 16 in the last 11 seasons.

This rivalry has featured legendary players like Oscar Robertson, David West, Kenyon Martin, and Byron Larkin.

There have been last-second dramatic shots by unlikely heroes like Lenny Brown, Joe Stiffend, Jamal Walker, and Jihad Muhammed.

There has even been a million dollar half-court shot by a fan named Theo Nelson.  And who could forget his Vontaze Burfict-like tackle of the Blue Blob after the shot went in.

My first Shootout as a fan and broadcaster was “The Lenny Brown” game.  I was the color analyst for Fox 19 with Thom Brennaman on play-by-play.  And I still had hair.

Me and Thom Brennaman

Since 2000, I’ve had the privilege to broadcast the Crosstown Shootout every year on 700 WLW.  As the Voice of the Bearcats, it’s the only game where I dread the possibility of losing more than I enjoy the potential of winning.  That’s one of the things that makes this game so distinct.  If your team loses, you will come in contact with fans from the other team nearly every day until the two schools meet again.

When you think about it, the Crosstown Shootout is a lot like its sponsor.  If you didn’t grow up here, chili is a stew that comes in a bowl with ground beef and kidney beans.

But if you’re from Cincinnati, chili is a runny sauce served on spaghetti and topped with a giant helmet of cheddar cheese.

Skyline chili

The rest of the country can scoff, but we know that it’s delicious.

Similarly, the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout is a once-a-year treat and it uniquely ours.  It’s a five-way with great players, legendary coaches, passionate fans, thrilling finishes, and high stakes.

As rivalries disappear, thank heavens The Shootout is alive and well.

Backcourt Brothers

Troy Caupain verbally committed to play college basketball at Cincinnati in early June before his senior year of high school.

Three days later, Kevin Johnson did the same thing.

The two future Bearcats read about each other after committing to UC, but didn’t cross paths until an unexpected meeting the following month.

“We met at an AAU tournament in Las Vegas,” said Caupain. “We played in a back gym – Team Loaded vs OBC (Ohio Basketball Club). It went to overtime and unfortunately, Kevin’s team beat us by like one point. Later on the trip, we were walking the strip and I saw his team at Chipotle and we both had on Cincinnati shirts. I was like, ‘That’s Kevin.’ And he was like, ‘That’s Troy.’ There was a bond from there.”

“Their friendship kind of started at that tournament in Vegas,” said UC associate head coach Larry Davis. “They made the effort to hook up with one another because they were both committed to Cincinnati.”

Caupain drive (297x440)

Caupain was born in Amityville, NY but attended high school near Richmond, VA. Johnson grew up in Cincinnati and introduced his future teammate to his hometown when they were still in high school.”

“I visited during spring break senior year and spent a week with him and we built a relationship,” said Caupain. “Ever since then, there’s been a bond that can’t be broken.”

“He’s my brother,” said Johnson. “I feel like I’ve known him for more than these two years of college. It seems like I’ve known him forever and that’s a good feeling man.”

“That wasn’t a surprise because of their families,” said head coach Mick Cronin. “They’re both educated and intelligent kids and they got to know each other before they even came to Cincinnati. I think they both have the character where they are rooting for the other guy. It’s important on a team to have somebody there to support you when you struggle. It’s easy for the kids when things are going well, but Troy and Kevin have really helped each other through any tough times that they’ve had to this point in their careers.”

Kevin Johnson dunk (243x440)

After coming off of the bench as freshman, the two roommates are starting backcourt mates as sophomores. Caupain leads the Bearcats in scoring (10.1) and assists (3.6), and Johnson is averaging 7.6 points since the start of conference play.

“It definitely helps to know that you have somebody by your side who believes in you,” said Johnson. “And we definitely have that chemistry – you kind of know what the other guy is going to do and that’s a great feeling on the court.”

“If you look at great guard tandems over the years, they had a second sense for knowing when the other guy was going to cut or what he was going to do,” said Coach Davis. “I think the more that they play together, the more they are going to develop that closeness.”

And it’s not only on offense. A major reason why Cincinnati is fifth in the nation in scoring defense (54.5 points) is the pressure Caupain and Johnson put on opposing guards at the top of UC’s matchup zone.

“You see it out front in our defense when Troy and Kevin are in there and they are playing as one,” said Coach Cronin. “The more they do that, the better we’ve gotten on defense. And I really believe over the last few weeks that it’s improved immensely.”

While their chemistry continues to grow on the court, the backcourt brothers could not be much closer off of it.

“We sit in our living room all the time after practice and talk about everything,” said Caupain. “Deshaun Morman is usually with us too – he lives across the hall but he’s like a roommate. We talk about the things you need to talk about with people that are really important to you.”

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Wildcard Wednesdays With Tommy Tuberville

If the Dos Equis guy is the Most Interesting Man in the World, then UC head football coach Tommy Tuberville isn’t too far behind.

Tuberville in racing helmet (440x292)

Every weekday during the football season, I tape a radio report with Coach Tuberville that airs on 700 WLW and ESPN 1530. Most of the time we discuss the Bearcats and their upcoming opponents, but on “Wildcard Wednesday” we get away from football and delve into just about anything including:

TUB’S PAST

What did your father do for a living?

I’m a military brat. My dad was in the military all of his life. He actually died on active duty at age 53. He fought in World War II, earned a Purple Heart and five Bronze Stars. I’m passionate about this country and our military because a strong military keeps us free and gives us the opportunity to do things like play the great game of football and have a chance to have a great life. I’ve been overseas twice with other coaches to visit our troops at different military bases in the Middle East. We have the freedoms that we have today because of what our vets have done in the past, so I try to spend as much time with our military as I possibly can.

You’ve started the Tommy Tuberville Foundation with the goal of building homes for wounded veterans.

I’m very partial to our military men and women who fight for our country. A lot of them are the same age as the young men who play for me on this football team. Many come back missing arms, legs, or are burned. It’s really a sad situation. But we’ve started this foundation. We’re raising money, we had a golf tournament this year, and we’re going to spend $150,000 to $200,000 a year building a home for a veteran that can’t function in the home they have now. We’re trying to give them an opportunity to live a normal and functional life.

You are an avid hunter correct?

I grew up a country boy in Camden, Arkansas. Our nearest neighbor was about a mile away and I didn’t have a car to drive around in, so the only thing I had to do in my off-time was hunt and fish. When I was probably 10, 11, or 12 years old, my dad started taking me hunting and I’ve been hunting all of my life. I’m not an avid deer hunter anymore because that’s during football season, but I do like to quail hunt, pheasant hunt, and turkey hunt. Turkey hunting is one of my passions. It’s a hard sport, it’s time consuming, but it’s all in the spring. I like being outdoors and I guess you can call me an outdoorsman because when I’m not coaching, I play golf and I go outside and hunt and fish.

Let’s talk about your playing career for the Southern Arkansas Muleriders. What position did you play and were you any good?

“Kick ‘em Mules kick ‘em.” That was our battle cry. Everybody has a chant in the south, and that was the Muleriders’ cry. I grew up about 40 miles from Southern Arkansas University and I knew a couple of coaches on the staff so I went down there. I was a high school quarterback and they moved me to safety because I didn’t throw the ball well enough to play quarterback in college football. I didn’t play much until my junior year, and I played special teams, safety, and in the nickel. I was one of those coaches on the field that tried to get people lined up against the wishbone. I wasn’t a rolling ball of butcher’s knives, but I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot and that caused me to get into coaching. I didn’t know what I was going to do until I got to college. I thought I was going to get into business or sell fried chicken or something, but the coaches that I had at Southern Arkansas and a passion for learning made me want to get into coaching.

Tell us about your brief stint in the restaurant business.

I had a good friend of mine who started this catfish restaurant in Conway, Arkansas. The name of the river there was the Toad Suck Ferry and the restaurant was the Toadsuck Catfish Inn. So I decided one year that I was going to get into the restaurant business and opened Tubby’s Catfish in Tullahoma, Tennessee. The specialty on our platter was two catfish filets, two frogs legs, two chicken wings, and we had this drink called ‘pond water’ – it was actually a fruit drink. We called it ‘Tubby’s Pond Platter’ and that was the specialty of the restaurant. The restaurant actually did pretty well. It’s a very interesting business and I made a lot of friends and still get a lot of calls from people that went to my restaurant.

In between coaching at Auburn and Texas Tech, you worked for ESPN for a year. Did you enjoy it?

I really did because I was kind of burned out after 14 years in the SEC. ESPN called and I worked for ESPN and ESPNU. I didn’t want to broadcast games because I wanted to get back into coaching and didn’t want to make anybody mad. I traveled to Charlotte a couple of days a week and I traveled to Bristol, Connecticut to work in the studio and do “First Take” every Friday. Every Friday morning they wanted me to talk about the top games across the country so, for example, I had to look at what the Pac 10 was doing. In 14 years in the SEC I didn’t have a clue what they were doing out there. So I had to get up to speed on all of the teams across the country and look at tape. That was a good thing about ESPN. You could walk into the studio and put on tape of any game you wanted to pull up. I learned a lot, met a lot of good people, and enjoyed it, but I really enjoy the coaching profession more than I enjoy the studio work.

TUB’S FAMOUS FRIENDS:

Former President George W. Bush visited the Bearcats locker room before the win at SMU and it’s not the first time you’ve met him.

I actually had dinner with him a couple of times in Lubbock with former Texas Tech Chancellor Kent Hance. Kent actually ran against George W. Bush years and years ago for Congress and he’s the only one who’s ever beaten George for public office. They became friends so I had a chance to meet him there. Then when I went to the Middle East to visit our troops, we stopped in Washington and I saw him in the Oval Office. I had the chance to meet Ronald Reagan at the White House when we won a National Championship at Miami, along with George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. So I’ve met a few presidents over the years and that’s a thrill. But I was really excited for our players this year. They had their cameras out five minutes before kickoff while he was speaking to them and our guys will have a moment that they’ll always remember.

Tell about your friendship with former University of Miami and Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson.

I got to know Jimmy in the late 70’s when he was the head coach at Oklahoma State. My boss at Arkansas State was Larry Lacewell and they were best friends. We’d go trade thoughts on offense and defense, and when he became the head coach at the University of Miami, he asked me to come down and help them with their defense. So I’ve been friends with him ever since and I’m very fortunate that he gave me that break because we obviously had very good football teams back them. He’s kind of an unusual guy. He loves football and obviously knows a lot about it, but he’s an outdoorsman and he loves fishing. He’s got a boat that he calls “Three Rings” for his National Championship ring and two Super Bowl rings. He lives right outside of Islamorada, Florida which is down in the Keys. He works for Fox Sports so he has to fly a lot on the weekends, but every morning if he’s home he’s going to be fishing, cleaning fish, or cooking fish. That’s what he loves to do. He’s goes without a shirt most of the time, wears a swimsuit, and just loves the water.

Tell me about your friendship with The Rock?

He’s an amazing story. We recruited Dwayne Johnson out of Pennsylvania and he was one of those clean-cut good looking kids. He looked the part, but he wasn’t real aggressive. He worked his way up and played quite a bit, but all the guys knew – his grandfather and his dad were wrestlers and he kind of grew up in that mold and always lifted weights and looked good. I wasn’t surprised that he got in to wrestling, but I was really surprised at how big he got. He became as big a name in wrestling for years there as anybody. Of course, now he’s turned into an actor and a very good actor. I’m proud to have known him and watched him grow up, but it’s very unusual for a guy to go from college football and not play pro football and then have the stature that he has as an actor.

When the team was in Memphis, you had dinner the night before the game with an old buddy who, according to Forbes Magazine last year, was the 243rd richest person in the world.

Fred Smith, owner of FedEx and the guy that started it from scratch. What a guy he is. He’s a great story and a guy that has a lot of intelligence – obviously. He loves college football and both of his sons played. Arthur played at North Carolina and his son Cannon graduated from the University of Memphis, played safety, and actually went through an NFL camp but didn’t quite make the team because of an injury. Fred Smith loves football – he’s part owner of the Washington Redskins. He’s obviously done well in life and I tell you, that business he runs has more than three hundred thousand employees. That’s a huge, huge responsibility and something that pushes our economy – not only in this country but all over the world. So I’m really proud to call him my friend. We talk all of the time and he really does love athletics and football.

Is it true that when you were the head coach at Ole Miss that you used to have dinner with best-selling author John Grisham?

John is about the same age as I am and his wife and my wife had a lot in common. John is from Oxford, Mississippi and actually taught a law class on campus. We would have dinner every once in a while and he was an interesting guy to talk to. He wrote at night and is one of the most popular authors of all time. He has sold more books than just about anybody, but you would never know it. He would walk around with a beard and was just happy-go-lucky. The first book that he wrote he couldn’t give away. It was A Time To Kill which is actually one of his better ones and he went around to different places in the state of Mississippi and tried to sell it in bookstores and sold a few. Then he came out with The Firm and he said when he sold that one he went back and re-published A Time To Kill and it just went berserk and sold millions of copies. He’s an interesting guy. He’s since moved to Virginia so that he could write. He said that he has too many friends in Oxford and he couldn’t write because too many people came over. He’s an interesting guy and I really enjoyed his friendship.

I want to know about your friendship with one of my all-time favorite broadcasters – “Uncle Verne” Vern Lundquist.

I go way back with Verne. I got to know him when he was an announcer for the Dallas Cowboys years ago. More recently, he’s been the voice of the SEC Game of the Week on CBS and did a lot of our games when I was in that conference. I had an opportunity to go to Steamboat Springs a few times over the last 15 years to snow ski and he lives there. He loves to ski and he’s just a great guy. I’ve actually sat with him near the 16th green in his little cubicle at Augusta National during The Masters. We’ve been good friends for a long time. I really enjoy his company. He has a lot of history and I just sit back and listen to him talk about all of the athletes and coaches he’s been around.

When the San Francisco Giants won Game 7 of the World Series this year, the starting pitcher was a former neighbor of yours.

Tim Hudson. He played for the Auburn Tigers and he’s a good guy. When he graduated, I think he ended up going to Oakland at the beginning of his career. He won the Cy Young Award and then got traded to the Atlanta Braves which was a life-long dream. While he was in Atlanta, his family moved to Auburn – which is an hour from Atlanta – and he built a home just down the street from me. A very big home. His kids all went to school where my kids went to school. Tim’s a good guy. He doesn’t look like an overwhelming pitcher, but he can throw some heat and make the ball spin. He’s a good friend and I’m eager to see what he can do over the next few years. I think he’s got a little left.

TUB’S BUCKET LIST

I know that you’ve played Augusta National on a few occasions. What’s your best score?

I’ve never broken 80. I’ve been pretty close to it – probably 81 or 82. The course is wide open – it’s not like some of these courses where you have to hit an iron off the tee to keep it in the fairway. The biggest challenges are the undulation in the fairways where you never have a flat lie and then the slick greens. If you just hit the ball on the green, there will probably be several times where your caddy will say, ‘You’ve hit the green but there’s no way you can get it in the hole from there in four putts.’ I’ve actually five-putted. The first time I played there, I hit a good drive on the first hole and my caddy said, ‘Whatever you do Coach, keep it below the pin. Don’t hit this shot above the pin.’ Well I hit what I thought was a good shot, but it was a little bit thin and rolled about 15 feet past the hole. My caddy kind of grunted and shook his head. I got up to the green and I had a 15 foot downhill putt and he said, ‘You’re going to end up in the sand trap.’ I just barely touched the ball and it rolled right into the trap.

You had a hole in one last summer. Tell me the details?

That was my second one. I love golf because you get to do it outside, get to meet people, and you learn a lot about them. You get to talk about a lot of different subjects, although most of the time people I play with want to talk about football. I made this hole in one on the second hole at Coldstream. I was playing with some boosters that had actually bought a round of golf with me at an auction so they were Bearcats fans. We played the first hole and none of us played it very well and then after the second hole we all certainly had something to talk about. Hopefully I can play enough golf over the years to make two or three more hole-in-ones.

On this segment over the last two years, we’ve discussed many of the interesting people you’ve met and things you’ve had the opportunity to do. What’s still on the Tommy Tuberville bucket list?

I want to take my kids over to Normandy. My dad was in the first wave that landed on Omaha Beach to liberate France. My dad signed up for the Army when he was 16. He lied about his age, quit high school, and when he was 17-and-a-half, he was fighting in the middle of a World War. He landed in a tank, and fortunately was one of the few early ones that made it to shore and made a difference. I want to see that one day and hopefully I can do that with my family in the future.

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

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The Drought And The Doubt Continue

The Arizona Cardinals had little chance of advancing in the playoffs with third-stringer Ryan Lindley at quarterback.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were much easier to defend when Le’Veon Bell was sidelined before the opening round loss to Baltimore.

And the Bengals latest postseason failure was significantly due to injuries at wide receiver, tight end, and linebacker.

“We’re definitely not using that as an excuse and I hope that’s not the storyline,” said George Iloka.

That’s not an excuse – it’s a reason.

“You see it every year,” said Andrew Whitworth. “One team might not be the best but it’s the healthiest.”

Lamur down on bench (373x440)

Before you fire off an angry “every team in the NFL has injuries” e-mail, I will readily admit that’s true. But not all injuries have the same impact. Show me the team that won a playoff game (ever?) without its top two receivers (A.J. Green and Marvin Jones), top two tight ends (Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham), and top two linebackers (Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga).

The Bengals chances of postseason success were heavily dependent on a successful running attack led by Jeremy Hill. When Green and Gresham were ruled out before Sunday’s game, it became much easier for the Colts to “stack the box” on defense to make it difficult to run.

“There could be 11 guys on the line – you still have to make plays,” said Hill who finished with 47 yards rushing. “You’ve got to make guys miss and break tackles – that’s what the great running backs do and I didn’t do that today.”

While I appreciate Jeremy’s sentiments, I didn’t see many holes to run through.

Instead, the Colts strategy dared the Bengals to beat them with downfield passes, but Cincinnati’s longest completion was a 26-yard throw to converted running back Rex Burkhead. Andy Dalton had an opportunity for a big play on a flea-flicker to Brandon Tate but did not lead him enough on the heave.

“I felt like there were some good things out there, but I didn’t play good enough,” said Dalton. “That’s what it comes down to. I’ve got to do more. I’ve got to push our guys to do more, but it all starts with me.”

Dalton joined Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to lose their first four playoff games. Marvin Lewis joined Jim Mora as the only coaches to go 0-6 in the postseason.

“They say it is Marvin’s record or Andy’s record but it’s our record,” said Vinny Rey. “It’s my record too. I want to turn this thing around. We didn’t do it today, but if we don’t learn from this then we’ve gained nothing.”

So what did we learn?

Last year when Dalton had a full stable of healthy receiving targets, he set team records by throwing for 4,293 yards and 33 touchdowns. This year without Jones, Eifert, and Green (for most of six games), those numbers plummeted. A handful of quarterbacks can thrive regardless of who they’re throwing to, but Andy is not on that list.

Donte Moncrief, Hakeem Nicks

The Bengals also need to rediscover their pass rush. Cincinnati was dead last in the NFL with 20 sacks this year after having 43, 51, and 45 in the previous three seasons. Andrew Luck dropped back to pass 46 times on Sunday and was only sacked once. How many times did he bounce around in the pocket for ages before finding an open receiver?

“I hate playing those types of quarterbacks – like Big Ben – the guys that can keep the play alive because it’s hard to stay in coverage that long,” said Iloka. “Most coverages are built for ‘One, two, three, ball is out.’ After that, you’re scrambling around trying to find who is open and cover them.”

Perhaps the biggest thing that we’ve learned is that it’s hard to enjoy being one of only four teams to go to the playoffs each of the last four years when the postseason ends in the first round.

“It sucks,” said Giovani Bernard. “It’s not fun. We’ve got to rebound, get some new additions to the team and take it from there.”

“I feel bad for the players, I feel bad for the city and the fans,” said Marvin Lewis. “We fought our butts off, but we didn’t get enough done today.”

The last time the Bengals won a playoff game, George H.W. Bush was President, the Wire-to-Wire Reds were the reigning World Series champions, and the UC Bearcats were in their second season under a brash young coach named Bob Huggins.

The drought and the doubt continue.

“It’s motivation,” said Hill. “That’s all you can do at this point. The season is over so you’ve got to use it as motivation in the off-season and come back stronger than ever.”

“There’s a reason we’re in it every year and that’s because we set out at the beginning of the year – myself and the leaders of this team – and we create that atmosphere,” said Whitworth. “That atmosphere isn’t going anywhere as long as I’m here. You can’t guarantee anything, but I promise you that we’ll put in the time to be here again next year.”

“You get back to work and you get ready to beat down the door again,” said Lewis. “That’s all you can do.”

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

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Demon Exorcised…For Now

Moments before kickoff on Monday night’s broadcast, I encouraged Bengals players, coaches, and fans to close their eyes and imagine they were on Wake Island – a small atoll in the central Pacific Ocean where the local time is 17 hours ahead of Cincinnati.

In other words, when it’s 8:00 at night in Cincinnati, it is 1:00 in the afternoon on Wake Island.

Whatever it takes to fix the Bengals’ prime time woes right?

But Marvin Lewis took a more straight-forward approach with his players.

“I tried to defuse it with them and have them not worry about it,” Lewis told me. “Every opportunity is a new opportunity. So don’t worry about that. This is the game at hand and go win it.”

But it was hard for the players not to worry about it. After losing four straight prime time games and a playoff game by an average of 15 points, it was nearly impossible to tune in to the NFL Network or ESPN without hearing about the Bengals inability to win when the spotlight shines brightest.

Monday’s 37-28 win over Denver has quieted that talk – at least for now.

Dre in the rain (440x289)

“That was a huge monkey on our backs and one that we needed to get off,” said Hue Jackson. “The truth of the matter is that we hadn’t done well in those games but it’s not like the guys weren’t competing and trying. It just didn’t happen for them. I would hope last Monday night that we exorcised that demon – not just for the players but for the organization, Mike Brown, the Brown family, and for the city. Peopled watched the Cincinnati Bengals defeat a very talented team on Monday Night Football and I think our players can walk away from that with some confidence as we continue to move forward.”

“I’m going to be honest with you,” said Wallace Gilberry. “That was a playoff environment from snap to finish – the crowd, the weather, the intensity – it was a playoff-type game. So it had a lot of meaning.”

But it wasn’t just winning the game – it was how the Bengals won.

When Andy Dalton’s second pass of the night was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Aqib Talib, the sense of impending doom at Paul Brown Stadium was palpable.

Raise your hand if you were thinking, “Here we go again.”

“We obviously didn’t want the interception to happen, but I talked to the guys the night before the game and said, ‘Whether it goes good or it goes bad, we can’t worry about it. We have to keep playing.’” said Jackson. “After the interception, I think the guys came to the sideline, kind of looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t going to be the same outcome.’ It started with Andy Dalton, Andrew Whitworth, and the rest of the offensive line. Sure enough, on the next play we were able to send a message.”

Hill long run Denver (440x307)

That play was an 85-yard touchdown run by Jeremy Hill that tied the score and showed that the Bengals weren’t going to come unglued after an early mistake.

“I think it ignited our team,” said Jackson.

And it established a pattern. Whenever the Broncos made a big play, the Bengals answered.

“To keep coming back and answering every score was just great,” said Lewis. “I’m proud of the players and their resiliency.”

The 85-yard TD was the start of another big night for Hill who has averaged nearly 104 yards a game over the last eight weeks, with three runs of 60 yards or longer.

“Prior to the last season, one of the things that we felt that we needed to be able to do was make more explosive runs to go along with the big plays in the passing game,” said Lewis. “Obviously with Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, we’ve been able to find two guys that have that kind of ability.”

Bernard began this season as the Bengals primary ball carrier, but Hill has taken over the role in the last two weeks and rushed for 148 yards against Cleveland and 147 yards against Denver.

“It was a tough call – but a good call – and I thought it was the right thing to do,” said Jackson. “Talking to Coach Lewis, I thought it was the direction that we needed to go. I’m used to having one guy dominate the carries and another guy play. I give kudos to Gio because he didn’t bat an eye. He said, ‘Coach, if that’s what’s best for the team in order for us to win, then that’s all I’m interested in.’ That’s says a lot about him because this was his chance and obviously he got injured and things have kind of changed. But at the same time, he knows that he’s going to play and that he’s a very valuable member of this football team. I’m still expecting big things out of him, but Jeremy’s done a great job.”

When Jackson replaced Jay Gruden as offensive coordinator he vowed to make Cincinnati a more effective running team. After rushing for 244 and 207 yards in their last two games, the Bengals have climbed to number five in the NFL in rushing. The defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks are number one.

“When I took this job I said that this is what we would do – but if you go back and play the tape I never said when we would do it,” said Jackson. “You want to be a balanced football team and be able to thrive by land or by air. We’ve had some of our pass catchers get hurt, we’ve had some inconsistency in our play, and the one thing that I’ve always known you can lean on is the running game. I try to tell people that we’re still building our offense. I knew eventually that this thing would take off. To have 200 yards rushing in back-to-back in the NFL says a lot.”

That will be hard to replicate on Sunday night in Pittsburgh. In the first meeting between the two teams, the Steelers only allowed 86 rushing yards but surrendered 327 passing yards.

“We’re going to go into the game with a great plan – I know that,” said Jackson. “Honestly, if we have to throw it 40 times then we’re going to throw it 40 times. If we have to run it 40 times, then we’ll do that. We just want to win and we’ll do whatever it takes. But we know where it starts. We like to run the football and we’re going to attempt to run the football.”

And when we go on the air this week, I will not be encouraging anybody to imagine being in a different time zone. The Bengals have proven they can beat a good team in prime time. Now they’ll try to do it twice in six days.

“Our guys will be ready to play,” said Lewis. “We just have to handle the emotion of it and play with great poise for 60 minutes. That’s one thing that we have to improve upon from last week. We have to make plays in critical situations and then handle it. Handle success, handle failure, and move on to the next play.”

“This is the game of the year for us so far,” said Gilberry. “You play this sport to have meaningful games in December.”

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

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O-Line Paves Way For Redemption In Cleveland

Here’s a key lesson from the Bengals 30-0 win over Cleveland: The video screen is more powerful than the bulletin board.

Nelson screaming (440x327)

For all the talk of the Browns getting added motivation from Jeremy Hill’s “they’re worse than I thought” comment or Marvin Lewis’s “midget” gaffe, that was nothing compared to the Bengals doing a slow burn when they watched the video from their previous loss to Cleveland on Thursday Night Football.

“They came into our house and kicked the door in and we remembered that,” said Reggie Nelson.

While Andy Dalton’s 2.0 passer rating was the stat most frequently mentioned after the first game, the number 2.6 was just as discouraging. That’s how many yards the Bengals averaged on their 63 offensive plays in the home game vs. Cleveland.

“It was just a debacle,” said Hill after rushing for 148 yards in the rematch.

For obvious reasons, the Bengals utter domination of Johnny Manziel was the big story after Sunday’s win, but the tone was set before the rookie quarterback ever set foot on the field. Cincinnati’s offense began the game with a 14-play, 81 yard touchdown drive that took 7:07 off of the clock. Six of the plays were runs by Hill.

Hill vs Cleveland (440x307)

“Coming out of the gates like that was key,” said George Iloka. “It sucked the wind out of their fans.”

“The offense did a great job on that first drive of wearing them down,” said Carlos Dunlap.

Particularly the O-line.

“They were embarrassed on Thursday night and our guys have a lot of pride and they’re fighters,” said offensive line coach Paul Alexander.

His fighters delivered knockout blow after knockout blow as the Bengals rushed for 244 yards on 45 carries.

“It’s kind of the way football should be played,” said Alexander. “Guys were pushing around, fighting, getting muddy and dirty, sweaty and bloody. It was a fun game – it really was.”

“It all started up front,” said my broadcasting partner Dave Lapham. “I thought the offensive line played a whale of a game and I thought (fullback) Ryan Hewitt was about as dominant as I’ve ever seen him – and he’s been pretty dominant.”

“I think they’ve been dedicated to being a physical group for a long time around here,” said Eric Winston.

Sunday’s performance lifted the Bengals to 6th in the NFL in rushing yards this season and Cincinnati ranks 4th in the league in fewest sacks allowed. That speaks to strong play from the entire offensive line and in an interview for this week’s “Bengals Gameplan” show (Wednesday from 6-8 on ESPN 1530), Coach Alexander shared some thoughts on his offensive lineman:

LT Andrew Whitworth and RG Kevin Zeitler

“I think they both are certainly Pro Bowl players,” said Alexander. “Whit this year – as crazy as it sounds at his age – I think he’s having his best season ever. He’s completely healthy, the game has really become easy for him because he’s played so long and is so experienced, and he’s leading with great toughness. And Zeitler is really coming into his own now. There are times where he looks absolutely beautiful – technically, physically, and with toughness. He’s very hard on himself and that’s probably why he’s developed into such a good player. I think they’re both outstanding football players.”

Rookie C Russell Bodine

“I think he’s gotten significantly better over the course of the season,” said Alexander. “I remember people saying, ‘Oh my God, he can’t even shotgun snap to the quarterback,’ after OTAs and obviously he’s long past that. He runs the show now and he’s such a tough, solid guy in the middle. He gets along with the other guys and they have fun in there together. He can knock a nose guard back as well as any center in the league really. He still has to continue to work on catching linebackers and so forth, but I’d take the one over the other any day.”

LG Clint Boling who has helped replace the injured Andre Smith at RT

“He did great against Pittsburgh,” said Alexander. “He went out there and graded above 90 percent and I can’t imagine anybody could do that. He helped us out and he helped himself out by being able to do that. He gave up a couple of pass protections that he would like to have back in the Cleveland game, but overall, he’s done better at tackle than you think a guy would who has played guard his whole life.”

Recently signed RT Eric Winston who was in for 33 snaps last week at Cleveland

“He came in the first week and knocked it out,” said Alexander. “I give a pretty difficult test the night before the game, and I was amazed – he’s probably the first player to come in and get 100% on the test in one week. So he’s a very quick study, he knows the players in the league obviously, and he’s still a good player. He played a little bit more last week and we’ll see how this week goes.”

The Bengals offensive line faces a difficult challenge this week in a Denver defense that ranks number one in the NFL in yards allowed per play.

“They’re excellent,” said Alexander. “They’ve got a huge nose guard in there – the kid from Temple, Terrance Knighton – he’s a big man and he clogs up the middle. That helps because their inside linebackers are extremely fast. And if that’s not enough, they’ve probably got the best pair of outside linebackers in the league in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Those guys are great rushers and are also athletic and great in the run game.”

The players will surely be reminded this week of how poorly they’ve played in their two previous prime time games this year, and perhaps video from those games should play on an endless loop in the locker room.

Redemption proved to be a great motivator last Sunday in Cleveland.

“It meant a lot,” said Iloka. “And if anybody says anything different they’re lying.”

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

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Prayers Answered On Mistake-Filled Day

Let’s review some of the events of Sunday’s win at Tampa Bay shall we?

Green TD vs Bucs (440x343)

On the first play from scrimmage, the Bengals upchucking quarterback (no, not you Matt Scott), hurls the first of three first half interceptions.

In the second quarter, a red zone sack by Geno Atkins that would have forced the Buccaneers to kick a field goal is negated by a face mask penalty. Two plays later, Tampa Bay scores a touchdown to take a 10-0 lead.

Roughly five minutes after that, the puking passer tosses a cookie into double coverage that is picked off in the end zone.

Near the end of the half after an interception by Terence Newman gives the Bengals the ball at the Tampa Bay 40-yard line, Cincinnati fans universally scream “CALL A TIMEOUT” before the Retching Rifle attempts to heave a pass out of bounds only to have it float into the hands of a Bucs defender.

In the third quarter after finally taking the lead for the first time, the Bengals attempt an onside kick that fails miserably. Even if it had worked, they were penalized for being offsides.

In the fourth quarter, the Rapidly-Recovering Rifle threads the needle between three defenders on third-and-16, only to see the ball dropped 20 yards downfield by the normally sure-handed Mohamed Sanu.

With 1:28 left in the game, Bucs quarterback Josh McCown throws a screen pass to Bobby Rainey with Reggie Nelson in position to make the tackle for a two-yard loss. But Nelson fails to make the stop and Rainey races 29 yards to put Tampa Bay in position for a game-winning field goal.

Did I miss anything?

Oh yeah, despite all of that the Bengals won.

“It’s an ugly win but it goes in the win column,” said my broadcasting partner Dave Lapham. “When you look at the standings there’s no ‘UW’ for ugly win or ‘PL’ for pretty loss. It’s a win or a loss.”

“At the end of the day all you need to win by is one point,” said Andy Dalton. “When you look back on it, it’s a win. This one was pretty crazy.”

Dalton vs Bucs (440x331)

And pretty gutsy – pun intended – for Dalton who wasn’t just a little under the weather. As Bengals.com editor Geoff Hobson described in great detail, the Bengals quarterback was seriously ill. But in the second half as he began to feel a little better, Andy went 12-for-16 for 114 yards, 1 touchdown, and a passer rating of 115.1.

“I told him after the game – and I don’t even know if it registered because he was pretty sick – I was like, ‘Man, I just really appreciate the way you battled for us,’” said George Iloka.

“I told him that Michael Jordan did it with the flu and you’re no different than him,” said Wallace Gilberry. “My hat goes off to him. He was throwing up before the game and you could look into his eyes and tell that he was not feeling right. He came out and did what he could do and it was up to us to uphold him and we did that.”

With a huge assist from the 2-and-10 Bucs.

Tampa Bay had the ball at the Cincinnati 31-yard line with 44 seconds and no time outs remaining. From there it would have been a 49-yard field goal attempt for Patrick Murray who is 4-for-5 from 50+ this season. But in an attempt to get a little closer, the Bucs tried a running play and center Garrett Gilkey was called for holding. That pushed the Bucs out of field goal range meaning Josh McCown had to pass.

After an incompletion, McCown hit Louis Murphy for what appeared to be a back-breaking 21-yard gain, but Bengals players and coaches quickly realized that the Bucs had 12 men on the field.

“We were having a hard time getting lined up on defense because of the 12th man,” said Marvin Lewis.

“After the play, they still had 12 on the field,” said Carlos Dunlap. “We told the ref to count them and he counted up to 12 so he called the penalty on the current play. Then we asked him to review the last one because they didn’t sub anybody.”

“I didn’t know they had too many players on the field until the coaches were coming off of our sideline talking about it,” said Leon Hall. “I was just basically hoping they were right.”

Hall was not the only Cincinnati player that didn’t see the infraction.

“To be honest with you, I had my eyes closed so I missed it,” said James Wright with a smile.

“Closed because you were praying?” I asked.

“It was in my thoughts,” Wright replied.

“Your prayer was answered, but maybe not the way you were thinking,” I responded.

“I don’t want to waste God’s time, but I’m happy that it happened like that,” Wright said.

The prayers of Bengals Nation were soon answered when the Steelers, Ravens, and Browns all lost to fall a game-and-a-half back in the AFC North. Cincinnati’s brutal slate of December games begins on Sunday at home against Pittsburgh.

“It’s the first time we’ve been home since the bad loss to Cleveland right?” said Iloka. “We owe our fans a good performance.”

That would be nice.

But we’ll all settle for another win.

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So Watt?

In the words of Yosemite Sam (you know you have an 8-year-old when you cite cartoon characters), J.J. Watt’s initials could stand for “Jumpin’ Jehosaphat!” this year.

But on Sunday against the Bengals, the overwhelming favorite to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year didn’t have a sack, force a fumble, intercept a pass, or score a touchdown. More importantly, his team didn’t get a win.

“Losing sucks,” said Watt. “You all know how I feel about it. As an athlete, that is the worst feeling.”

“They had Watt down for seven tackles – four unassisted – and I can’t remember all of those tackles,” said my broadcasting partner Dave Lapham. “He did bat down a pass and have a quarterback hurry when he got a hit on Andy, but he did not wreck the game plan which he has done to almost every team he’s played this season.”

Bengals block Watt (440x342)

Cincinnati’s ability to neutralize Watt was even more remarkable when you consider that the Bengals lost the primary player assigned to block him. When Andre Smith went down with a triceps injury in the first quarter, Marshall Newhouse had to square off against #99.

“Coming off the bench and having to go up against J.J. Watt is not the easiest thing to do,” said A.J. Green. “Hats off to him today. He played well; he was ready and accepted the challenge.”

“(Watt) makes you honest on every play,” said Newhouse. “Every snap in the first, second, third, and fourth quarter. I think I did pretty well for myself. I hold myself to a high standard.”

Regardless of down or distance, running play or passing play, Newhouse frequently remained standing before the snap or, in football language, in a two-point stance.

“It was a mix (of two-point and three-point stances) and it just depended on the play and where the ball was going,” said Newhouse. “Occasionally it was to make sure I stayed back and make him make the first move.”

“I thought the technique of playing in a two-point stance quite a bit of the time impacted (Watt) a little bit,” said Lapham. “I don’t think he quite knew how to attack that. If you lunge or lean against J.J. Watt you’re playing right into his hands and they didn’t do that.”

The Bengals didn’t leave Newhouse on an island as they frequently used Jermaine Gresham and Ryan Hewitt to assist Newhouse on double-teaming Watt and also adjusted the game plan to account for J.J.’s unique strengths.

“He’s ‘Mr. All-Everything’ so it is hats off to our offense, our O-line, and Coach Hue for putting together a good game plan,” said Rey Maualuga.

“We ran a lot of plays at him, away from him; we were kind of all over the place pass blocking,” said Newhouse.

“He didn’t really have explosive plays like he normally does so kudos to our offensive line,” said Mohamed Sanu.

The bottom line is that the Bengals turned J.J. Megawatt into So Watt?

“Marshall Newhouse deserves a lot of credit, but I thought the entire offensive line really did a good job,” said Lapham. “Across the board every single one of them should take a bow.”

“He’s a fantastic player, but they have a lot of other good players and we knew that we were going to have to block all of them in order to win,” said Andrew Whitworth.

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

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