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Bengals.com Honors: Comeback Player Of The Year

Posted Jan 13, 2015

Bengals.com honors Leon Hall as Comeback Player of the Year

Two years after doing the remarkable, Bengals cornerback Leon Hall pulled off the impossible this past season by simply starting 15 games for a playoff pass defense that finished in the top 10 in a slew of categories.

Head trainer Paul Sparling is in his fourth decade with the club and he can’t recall a defensive back that came back from a torn Achilles to play at a high level like Hall.

“Never mind two,” Sparling says. “When I first started breaking into the field, a torn Achilles was a kiss of death.”

Bengals.com’s Comeback Player of the Year has plenty of possibilities.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth recovered well enough from 2013’s knee problems to post an MVP season this year when he didn’t allow a sack. Punter Kevin Huber returned from that horrific moment in Pittsburgh where he broke his jaw and suffered chipped vertebrae to go to this year’s Pro Bowl. Left guard Clint Boling (ACL) and right guard Kevin Zeitler (foot) overcame last season’s injuries to help boost the Bengals reinvigorated running game.

As impressive as the list is, nothing comes close to Hall teaming with director of rehab Nick Cosgray to bounce back from a second torn Achilles since 2011.

“It’s testament to the advancement of medical techniques, the genetic makeup of Leon, and how he and Nick worked their butt off together every day,” Sparling says.

Like Hall, Cosgray couldn’t quite believe it on Oct. 20, 2013 when he limped off the field in Detroit with his right Achilles’ torn. They both knew exactly what it was since they had lived the left one being torn on Nov. 13, 2011 at Paul Brown Stadium against the Steelers.

“I gave him two days of feeling sorry for himself,” Cosgray says. “Then I told him, ‘You have to attack this thing just like you did the last one.’ And to his credit, he did. He was here every day and we didn’t have a problem from the day his foot was in a boot to the day he stepped on the field the first day of training camp.

“It says what kind of person he is,” Cosgray says. “I don’t even know how to describe Leon. He’s the hardest working player that I’ve had the pleasure of rehabbing. That’s for sure. To go through it a second time and the way he did it is incredible.”

Let Sparling tell you how important the Achilles is to an NFL cornerback:

“The (gastrocnemius) is the strongest muscle in the lower leg. The tendon where the muscle attaches is the Achilles’.  All the lower extremity force has to run through that. It’s vital. All the ability to run, all the ability to cut, all the ability to jump comes from the Achilles.”

It helps to have a good surgeon and the Bengals have one of the nation’s leading ankle and foot doctors in the Cincinnati-based Jim Amis. Bengals players rarely get another doctor to do foot surgery because they’ve already got one of the best, so they stay here. Just recently wide receiver Marvin Jones had Amis do his ankle surgery and wide receiver A.J. Green consulted with Amis on how to treat his bothersome big toe. Green won’t have surgery, but Hall may be Amis’ claim to fame.

“When you put the Achilles’ back together, you have to have the right length,” Sparling says. “If it’s too long, if it stretches out, they lose power. If it’s too short, they lose flexibility, which causes them to lose strength. You’ve got to get it right on the money. From a technical standpoint, putting it back together is not that complicated. The issue of getting it back to the proper length is what’s critical. They’ve got new equipment that allows them to make a more accurate assessment. They don’t have to eyeball it anymore.”

Cosgray’s eyeballs never wandered far from Hall during rehab. Hall calls him his “DB coach,” in that stretch of off-season drudgery when no other players were around and he had to fight the monotony and the uncertainty.

“I struggled with my second Achilles’,” Hall says. “I got down on myself a little bit. I had one already, that was a long process. To try to get yourself in that mindset to do it again, that was harder the second time.”

The breezy oh-you-did-it-before-you-can-do-it-again attitude of outsiders missed the mark. No injury, particularly a torn Achilles’, is the same.

“I assumed it was going to be the same thing. Same drills, same process,” Hall says. “But a couple of things popped up with my first that I didn’t have with my second. Some of the exercises I did with my first I wasn’t close to doing with my second and vice versa. That’s the great thing about Nick. He just doesn’t read a book and do everything in order.  You have to go where the injury takes you.”

Last time when Hall came back, in 2012, the injury took him to the top with some of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Profootballfocus.com rated him the No. 1 slot corner in the NFL. In 2014 the site put him No. 9 and he’ll tell you he didn’t play as well as he thought he could have played. PFF rated him the 55th out of 108 cornerbacks after rating him 24th in 2012.

But he won’t put that blame on age (30) or the second Achilles.

“I never looked at it as the Achilles. Physically, I feel fine,” Hall says. “If I put myself out there, either you make the play or you don’t. For whatever reasons, those plays I didn’t make this year were technical issues and mental issues.”

As great as the rehabs were, they still don’t get you fully prepared to play within the mechanics of such an elite profession as NFL cornerback. No off-season skill sessions. No OTAs and minicamps going snap-for-snap with NFL corners. All rehab. Little technique.

But look where Hall is this week, a week after the season is over. In the training room, of course, trying to get his body right for off-season workouts.

“Being a cornerback, you have to have a short memory.  But you have to be able to build that muscle memory and to a certain extent, I wasn’t able to do that,’ Hall says. “Working with Nick is great, but trying to emulate what you have on the field is hard. It will be nice to get in the DB drills and get the reps against the receivers. That will be great.”

It sounds like another comeback has hatched.

 

 

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