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Crash course

Posted Sep 4, 2012


Clint Boling

With center Jeff Faine about to make one of the more remarkable debuts in Bengals history, he surfaced in the Bengals locker room wearing No. 62 for the first time Monday. So it was time to go to the man that wore the first No. 62 in Bengals history.

Dave Lapham, the long-time Bengals radio analyst who once played every spot on the Cincinnati offensive line in the same game, can not only put himself in the same jersey but he can put himself in Faine's shoes. He centers the argument why he thinks Faine is going to be OK next Monday in Baltimore (7 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12 and ESPN) when the Bengals go into the din of one of the NFL's most suffocating homefield advantages against a Pro Bowl nose tackle anchoring a top three NFL defense with a center that didn't take a snap from quarterback Andy Dalton until eight days before the game.

"He's played there. He's played against those guys in that environment," Lapham said Monday as he commiserated with Cincinnati's two young guards in the locker room before practice. "I don't think it's going to be too big for the guy. The concepts and the schemes are the exact same, so he's not going to have an issue with that."

Lapham never played center in his life until the middle of his sixth season in the middle of a game against the Chargers when Blair Bush's knee gave out. He ended up playing in the Astrodome the next week against 2013 Hall of Fame candidate Curly Culp and though the 4-12 Bengals got smoked, 42-21, it wasn't because of the new center.

Lapham's first NFL head coach, Paul Brown, advised him as a rookie to learn not only his assignments, but everyone else's on the line and it held him in good stead against the nasty, ornery Culp, the guy that informed him early in the game, "If you don't hold me, we'll be all right."

"I came out of it OK," Lapham said. "Paul thought I was capable of not doing tunnel vision and it helped to know if the center was reaching, the guard was pulling, the tackle was blocking down, the fullback was filling. But I had never played the position. Jeff has been playing it for 10 years. I think he'll be fine."

Starting Tuesday, the Bengals can place center Kyle Cook on the injured reserve recall list with what is believed to be a severe ankle injury that could require surgery that keeps him out at least eight weeks. But by then his replacement would have had one walkthrough, one practice, and several film sessions in his attempt to begin filling the spot of a guy that is so valuable because his intelligence has made him the microchip of the offensive line.

The Bengals put so much on Cook that the obvious question is how can they put so much on Faine even if this is going to be his 118th NFL start? Faine says bring it on against one of the NFL's more sophisticated pre-snap defenses.

"I’m going to try to shoulder as much as I possibly can," Faine said. "I know that we’re going into the game with a similar game plan that we normally would. At least that’s what I’ve been told. I’m looking to shoulder it and do as much as I can to make it as easy a transition for these guys. I’m just trying to fill that spot. I’m not really trying to make it mine from my style of calling it or anything. I’m trying to fill it. These guys have been doing it here for a long time and speaking the same language for a long time and I’m trying to adapt to them."

It was a week ago Monday the Bengals first got word that Cook had serious problems and that's when Faine got the call from Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to start the recruiting. Gruden had Faine during the 2008 season in Tampa Bay and before Monday's practice Faine figured that 85 percent of the Bengals playbook is about the same as that one with the same language carrying over about 20 percent.

Remember studying those vocabulary lists in fifth grade? That's how Faine is spending his days. The very definition of verbose.

"He just has to make sure he calls it the right stuff," Lapham said. "It was this, now it's that. He knows exactly what he's looking at. He just has to learn to label it the right thing. Yeah, I knew the language and the offense, but I didn't have a week's time to prepare, either, and I had never played the position. He's been playing for 10 years in other systems."

The big problem is that there are three guys that have never done this. Faine has never played for the Bengals and he's starting between two guys basically making their first NFL starts. Left guard Clint Boling started last year's opener in Cleveland as a rookie, but it was at right guard. The right guard this year is a first-round rookie in Kevin Zeitler. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander loves being able to turn to Faine's experience. And the guards are going to be good once they've got some snaps in them.

But Alexander reserves the right to lose sleep this week.

"The NFL is filled with challenges and if you want the ultimate experience, this is the ultimate challenge," Alexander said.

But then again, Faine has seen everything and that means playing with kids. That happens when you're 31 and show up and are the oldest starter on offense.

"It’s going to be one of those things where we’re going to have to feel our way through it and just continue to communicate," Faine said. "The advantage these guys have got is they know the scheme. I’m still learning, but I’ve got a little bit of experience on my side. We’re just going to have to mesh it together.

"I had some young guys I was playing around. Really the entire line when I got (to Tampa Bay) was very young. Jeremy Trueblood was a young guy; Donald Penn was a young guy, so I played with a young group. I played with a young guy in New Orleans, Jahri Evans was a rookie. This is a young league. There’s not a lot of old guys around. I’m the oldest guy on the offense. I was the oldest guy on the offense in Tampa. It sounds crazy to say that. I’m 31 years old. But it’s just the way the league is trending."

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who at the tender age of 30 had been the oldest starter, doesn’t think anyone can forget about the four guys that are helping Faine.

"There'll be different things that have to be done. At the end of the day, we'll miss Cook a lot. But the truth is, the calls are the calls," Whitworth said. "Every guy along the line knows them. We're going to be just fine. Guys understand the offense. Nobody forgot the offense. We'll execute. We'll find a way to block these guys like we're supposed to. That's the only focus right now. Not about who's not here or what has to change. It's what we have to do to win."

If language is the barrier, Whitworth doesn't see a problem.

"At the end of the day, terminologies might be different but concepts are usually pretty close," he said. "They may have called it one different thing when we call it this, but he kind of has a general idea of the stuff we do. I think he's a professional. He's been around a lot and I don’t think he'll miss a beat there."

And the kids aren't just kids. There are those that believe Zeitler was the best guard prospect in the draft and his 40 Wonderlic score received more high grades than his high grades. And Gruden points out that Boling has played center as well as right guard here and can help.

"The concern is the communication part of it," Gruden said. "We'll get it done and we have to do a good job that we don't make it too hard for them."

Boling may not have had a Way out Wonderlic, but he's got his share of brains, too, and he's been around the offensive line. He started at least nine games at three spots at Georgia.

"Jeff will be able to handle it, and we'll go from there," Boling said of the calls. "Obviously we'll be relying on him to make some of the calls and if somebody else makes the call, we'll live with it. I think we'll be fine. I'm not worried about it."

Neither is Zeitler, although the biggest thing for him is going to be not getting too excited. He's extremely intense, but he's noticed Faine's focus and has been impressed.

"At Baltimore on Monday night," Zeitler said. "Definitely a welcome to the NFL moment."

That's what is so solid about the been-there-done-that Faine. He's played in Baltimore in a night game. And it was just two years ago for the Bucs he played in Baltimore against Pro Bowl nose tackle Haloti Ngata in a scheme where current Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees was the linebackers coach.

"He’s all that’s advertised. He’s powerful, quick and he plays with good power," Faine said of Ngata. "A lot of strong guys in the league don’t play with great power. He’s one of those guys that can put it on the field. It’s always a great challenge to go up against him. You’ve always got to play at your best."

And Faine is at an interesting point in his career. He admitted Monday that he would have been fine with retirement if the right opportunity didn't come along. But it did and it's got him revived.

"I’m smelling the roses a lot more than I did," Faine said. "I’m going to enjoy every second, every minute that I’m here. Enjoy just being back involved in the game and loving it again.

"I wanted to get in a situation where the team had something going for them and had a good coordinator on offense and had good, deep skill position guys. And these guys, you’ve got a great tight end, you’ve got a great quarterback, you have some good talent at wide receiver and they just brought in a running back. So this is a situation I was waiting for."

Lapham has his eyes on the quarterback. He's comparing this game to the Bengals 2004 home opener on a Sunday night against the Dolphins, when veteran center Jerry Fontenot had a day and a half to prepare and was seamless in quarterback Carson Palmer's first NFL victory in his second NFL start. This is Dalton's 18th NFL start and second opener on the road.

"Honestly, I think it's going to be just like Jerry Fontenot. And Jeff's had more time to digest it," Lapham said. "The plus for Jeff is that Andy's so smart with all the protections and stuff. He understands all that. If Jeff sets a protection and Andy changes it based on what he sees, it happens all the time."

What's in a number?

"I really believe," Lapham said, "he'll handle it."

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