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Passing it on

Posted May 7, 2013

Ask Brandon Thompson, one of those young, bright defensive linemen the Bengals seem to have a market on these days.


Brandon Thompson

Ask Brandon Thompson, one of those young, bright defensive linemen the Bengals seem to have a market on these days.

Ask him if he has ever heard of John Thornton, that old Bengals defensive tackle fans used to love to hate.

Ask him if he knows Thornton, the most influential free-agent signing in franchise history.

"No," Thompson says politely. "Never heard of him."

But he has.

Because Thompson, last year's third-round pick, sits in the same room where Thornton sat during the first six seasons of the Marvin Lewis era. He has Thornton's same position coach, Jay Hayes, the guy that calls Thornton's presence "far reaching." And he knows Thornton because he has been soaking up everything that veteran linemen Robert Geathers and Domata Peko do and say as the leaders of what many believe is the room housing the best defensive line in the league.

Want to know how it all came to pass?

Start with Thornton. Then trace the scouting of three fourth-round gems in Geathers (2004), Peko (2006) and two-time Pro Bowler Geno Atkins (2010). Then look at the development of two much-maligned college underachievers in Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. Then watch how they banded together for the bulk of the franchise-record 51 sacks before the front office got three of them back in the fold this offseason in Geathers, Johnson and Wallace Gilberry

"We're really close, tight. We've got that chemistry going," Peko says. "We know what our strengths are and feed off each other. We were talking about that on the field the other day and we were looking around saying how we’ve got all our guys back. All we've got to do is get better. You don't see that too often. Upstairs did a great job keeping us together."

But start with Thornton and that six-year, $30 million deal in Lewis's first free-agency class that was his first foray into changing the country club culture. Lewis even texted him as Thornton sat through Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's pitch, but he left Foxboro unsigned and intrigued with Lewis's vision.

"We had some cats in here when I first came around; they were about everything but what we were supposed to be doing," Hayes says of that D-line room. "John is without question the guy everyone wanted to be like. The other guys, bless their hearts … when something needed to be said, John said it.

"We had some characters. He was one of the guys that really started our room to be a room where it was being about our business."

Hayes agrees with Geathers and Peko that Justin Smith, now a Pro Bowler in San Francisco, left his own mark for the next generation with his Cowboy stoicism and motor. But when Thornton arrived, Hayes says, Smith was only in his third season and Thornton was more comfortable in the leader role.

"He was instrumental in my career," Geathers says. "J.T. was always there for the young guys. Open to anyone that wanted to be helped. In each room there are guys that have done it the right way and know how to do it and be able to bring a guy along that has respect for the game, that’s our way of giving back to the game. Helping these young guys like a Geno Atkins, who could possibly be a Hall of Famer. I'll do what I can to help him. Guys like me and Peko … and then it gets passed on."

The most influential signing in Bengals history?

Thornton was not only the glue of the line at tackle from 2003-2008 (like Geathers is now), but he helped hammer home the professionalism Lewis sought to bring to the locker room and to the rooms of position coaches like Hayes. Simple, every-day deeds passed down to the Brandon Thompsons of the world at a position that has arguably been the backbone of the back-to-back playoff runs.

"No," Thornton says of the most influential tag, which is worth slightly less than the franchise tag Johnson secured this spring with the help of his tutelage.

He laughs and says he was the most hated Bengal in the early days of the Internet. He had the gall to be a non-flashy, no-frills player that earned the coaches' trust with simple solidness while also having a big contract.

"That's more like Reggie Kelly and guys like that. I don’t see it that way," Thornton says of the big free agents. "When I came here, Marvin wanted leadership and he wanted guys to be extensions of the coaches. Even though I wasn’t as talented as these guys right now, when you add professionalism and hard work to it, it kind of helps you. A lot of these guys have it all. They have talent, they work hard, they're in on their off days. These guys are productive, too. They've got it all right now."

Thornton is in the news these days because he's trying to help Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith find a new agent in what has become a very messy first chapter in an NFL career. Before the kid even took a snap he replaced Lindsay Lohan and Tim Tebow in the New York tabloids in the time it took to say "Donald Trump."

"He's been getting beat up for no reason," Thornton says. "There's so much out there and who knows what's true? You don't know if it's true. He hasn't been treated well. He fired his agent, that was his decision. We're trying to support him until he gets his next one."

This is what Thornton, 36, has been doing since he retired after the 2008 season and using Cincinnati as his base. He's half-agent, half-trainer, half-marketer, half-shrink, half-charity, half-dad. He's waiting to hear if he'll be certified as an agent, but that won't change his philosophy.

"There are a lot of good agents out there. I'm not trying to do it by myself, but when you look at an NFL player, the success rate after football is not high," Thornton says. "And if you look at them during football, they don't have a lot of people around them. They have their agent, whoever, and agents are very territorial. They don’t want a lot of people around their clients.

"Players need people around them. Players don’t learn to do things on their own. I think you have to help the player become independent. That's my goal: to help everyone become independent."

It's not unlike what Thornton does for many guys that aren't even his clients. He's a staple at his alma mater of West Virginia, where he has spoken to the football team on a variety of subjects and where he spoke to all the teams about how to handle social media.

When one of his old teammates asked him to help out a kid at Marshall learn how to watch tape a few years ago, Thornton drove down some DVDs on a couple of Monday nights and huddled with defensive end Vinny Curry and went over how to read second-and-10 pass rushes and first-and-10 runs.

Geathers, who watched Thornton take Johnson, as well as former Bengals linemen Frostee Rucker and Pat Sims under his wing, had no hesitation in setting up his youngest brother Kwame with Thornton as he went through the draft process.

"He cares about the guys and tries to make sure agents work for the guys and not (just) collect the checks. He works for the player," Geathers says. "I like what he does for the guys. He helped guys like Pat and Frostee and Mike get on the right track."

Johnson showed up the first year of Thornton's retirement, but Thornton helped him get into the community and get his foundation settled so deeply in Cincinnati that he's one of the most visible guys in the city. Then Thornton went a long way in setting up last year's career 11.5-sack season by advising Johnson on a new offseason regimen that bulked him about 10 pounds.

Now Johnson and Atkins are moving into the Peko and Geathers roles as third-generation J.T.s, although the quiet Atkins is more the strong-silent-watch-me-do-it type.

"Mike's a great guy, great athlete; he does things the right way," Geathers says. "He wanted to learn from a veteran, figure out ways to get better and I'm glad to do it. It's always good to give back to the game that way."

Thornton, who learned how to give back on defensive line coach Jim Washburn's units in Tennessee at the turn of the century, says he's proud of what the Bengals have built up front. He keeps in touch with some of the guys during Johnson's many charity efforts, lunches now and again with Hayes, and can still tell by how Geathers is walking if he's had a tough practice.

"I would say it's the best defensive line in the league. I don't know who has a better front four or top seven in the group. I don't know who has that now," he says.

What Thornton really likes is how the Bengals have done it through the draft, bearing no resemblance to his early lines that were pieced together by free agency.

"It's homegrown, it's more natural. Free agents don't have that pride like when you're drafted somewhere," he says. "They've got a lot of pride in there. You win a lot more games that way."

But, of course, it was a free agent that helped change the culture. Hayes has had a nice run here with Atkins, the sack record, and two franchise players in Justin Smith and Michael Johnson. But it may have all started with a little spot on his board.

"One of the things John instilled in our guys was getting in on tackles down the field, running to the ball and getting a tackle downfield past the line of scrimmage," Hayes says. "You also want to get TFLs and sacks and stuff like that, but he really started the hustle plays in the room. When you see Domata running to the ball and (Geathers) running to the ball, it's because John used to have a spot on the board. He used to keep track of who got on a tackle down the field. He would keep track of it on the board in the room and that is something that permeated through the room. Eleven years later that is still here. Now it's like second nature. It's expected."

Geathers smiles.

"I think the room has evolved down through the years that some of the things that John was doing before, he wouldn't have to do now," he says.

But Geathers, heading into his 10th season after playing the most Bengals games of anyone on the roster, still has been able to pass on Thorntonisms.

"He would help me out studying more film, or just my offseason regimen on how to take care of my body as I got older," Geathers says.

Thompson, who has played a grand total of three NFL games, has checked in with Geathers and other veterans on the subject.

"This is a very aggressive sport," Thompson says. "Nutrition is a big thing and taking care of your body. I talked to a lot the guys about that. The cold tub. Anything you can do to preserve your body. I'm very thankful I can come into a situation like this. The veterans do a great job. I already knew I was coming to a great D-line."

Thompson has been listening like Geathers once did. His teammates have gone from calling him "June" (for "Junior") and "Jumpy" (for his uncle) to something else.

" 'Old Man Jump.' That's what we call him," Thompson says. "He's been around so long, everything that he tries to tell you, I want to take it in. Someday, I want to be in that position."

Make no mistake.

Thompson knows Thornton quite well.

 

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