With a dozen days left in the decade, an interesting tableau played out in the Bengals locker room Wednesday involving A.J. Green and Geno Atkins, the two Bengals players from this decade that should end the next in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
While fellow defensive linemen Carlos Dunlap and Andrew Billings explained why Atkins deserved to go to an eighth Pro Bowl despite not having the numbers this season, Green vowed to go to an eighth Pro Bowl with the numbers.
And even more than that.
"Five more. I've got five more good years left," Green said Wednesday, acknowledging he won't play a game this season with his injured ankle.
Five Pro Bowls?
"That's the plan," he said. "If I didn't get hurt last year I would have made it."
That would have been eight-for-eight. Eight Pro Bowls in eight seasons. If he didn't re-aggravate that big toe making the sliding catch to set up the last-play win over Tampa Bay in the eighth game last season, a full year would have computed to 90 catches for 1,374 yards and 12 touchdowns.
And an Eighth Pro Bowl. Now Atkins is the guy with eight, making him the only Bengal with more Pro Bowls other than Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz.
Instead, Green has gone two straight years without a Pro Bowl and is still at seven. But he didn't spend Tuesday night mourning or even watching the Pro Bowl show. He thinks he was watching "Keeping Up With The Kardashians," or something like that.
"Whatever my wife was watching," Green said. "I know I'd be out there. Definitely. But it's injuries. I can't control injuries. I don't get down on myself because I'm not playing."
In his own dose of reality TV, Green said Bengals running back Joe Mixon should be a Pro Bowler. But like injuries robbed Green, the vagaries of the most team-oriented sport there is prevented Mixon from being there.
And Green's reality is wide receivers need numbers to be recognized by not only fans, but players, coaches and, yes, Hall-of-Fame voters. He knows every number and decimal point he wants and needs. First, as he'll let you know, there is Chad Johnson's Bengals record of 10,783 yards. Then he goes from there.
But defensive tackles work under cover in a murky world of gray. Nine of them have more sacks than Atkins' 4.5. Two players on his own team, Dunlap (6.5) and right end Sam Hubbard (six) have more. But no one has more support than Atkins.
"Any D-tackle naturally gets doubled. But with the way Geno takes over a game they always want to know where he's at," said Dunlap as he mulled the question if Atkins has had a better year than his numbers.
"We all acknowledge we're having a bad year. This is not anything new. But he still demands and has that respect from his peers around the league and he got that acknowledgement."
Bengals defensive line coach Nick Eason voted for nine Pro Bowl offensive lines during his NFL career, which is how they do it. Opposing players vote for whom they play against. He doesn't buy the notion that players just vote for guys with a reputation.
"I voted for guys that impact the game. Not just for a name," Eason said after Wednesday's practice. "I'm sure there are some guys that vote for a guy from Clemson because he played at Clemson, or something like that. But I think most guys try to be fair as they can with certain guys. I think they try to be as fair as possible for a Pro Bowl vote."
Count Eason, a Clemson product, as a guy that thinks Atkins is deserving and not because he has coached him for a season. He invoked the name of one of his old Steelers teammates, nose tackle Casey Hampton.
"He'd have something like 42 tackles and a sack, but he went to the Pro Bowl because he affected the game," Eason said. "He changed the run. You had to double team the guy. When he was there, he gets noticed … It's more than numbers. It's how you impact the game."
And Eason sees the same thing with Atkins.
"In my mind yes," he said. "He faces a lot of combo blocks. He wins the one-on-one matchups. He drew a lot of double teams in the run game as well as the pass. Everything gets criticized. That's the world of sports.
"I've been on other teams. I know how they felt playing the Bengals. When you say the Bengals defensive line, the first guy you think about is Geno Atkins. You have to know where No. 97 is."
Now, you can't say Atkins is the same guy at age 31 that he was at 27. Who is? Especially playing inside like that. You don't see any 40-year-old three techniques. This is a guy that in his first nine seasons either led NFL interior defenders or shared the lead with sacks five times.
But Eason says there are no arguments this guy is a Pro Bowler in the defensive line room.
"He's not supposed to say anything. He's supposed to be quiet. Not in my room. He's vocal," Eason said. "Whatever I've asked him to do, he's done."
For instance, Eason pulled him aside one day and asked him to help massive rookie nose tackle Renell Wren. Teach him how to be a pro, Eason told him and Atkins obliged.
"Wren is a big guy, but he's a puppy," Eason said. "He started coming to me for extra work before practice, after practice and he's gotten better. He was playing well before he got hurt. I know for a fact Geno was a big influence for that."
Billings, the fourth-year nose tackle and the strongest guy on the team, says Atkins' strength is not his strength. He recalls how Atkins helped with the scheme when he was a rookie.
"Geno is damn near as strong as me," Billings said. "No. His strength is his knowledge. He's been in this league a long time and he knows what guys are going to do before they do it … He helped me get into the playbook when I first got into the league and really helped get my career going."
Since then there have been lunches and dinners and not just with Billings, but with the other guys. Just last week Atkins picked up the bill for a defensive line dinner. Last year at Christmas he gave each lineman boom boxes. The year before that, Billings thinks it was X-boxes.
"I hope this year he gives us 2021 Tahoes," Billings said with a wide smile as he caught Atkins' eye.
But Billings got serious when he recalled how Atkins counseled him coming back from a knee injury that wiped out his rookie year.
"He had a knee, too," said Billings of Atkins' 2013 ACL injury. "He motivated me when I was coming back. He kept telling me to trust my rehab and trust myself."
Which gets back to what Eason and Dunlap are talking about.
Numbers aren't everything.
An interesting tableau with a dozen days left in the decade.
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