Long before Bengals senior defensive assistant coach Mark Duffner went viral this season with his postgame "They've Got To Play Us!" he was doing it 40 years ago as the up and coming assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for Holy Cross.
Even before he became one of the most iconic head coaches in New England college football history when he lost five games in six years at the Worcester, Mass., school from 1986-91.
Dr. Kevin Reilly, one of the Bengals orthopedic magicians, is not only in this locker room, but he was also in that one after Duffner went into his parents' living room and recruited him to play on the Cross' offensive line after being a state runner-up wrestler at Cincinnati's St. Xavier High School.
"He could jump rope like Sugar Ray Robinson," Duffner says. "Smart, tough guy who could play any position on the line."
Before Duffner became the head man, he already had a deep bond with the players.
"Just like now, after a game, Duff could put in two or three sentences that immediately go to a player's heart," Reilly says. "He loves the game of football, but he really loves people and knows how to connect with them. I see the same look on the faces of (Trey) Hendrickson and (Sam) Hubbard that I saw on the faces of my teammates when they were listening to him."
Those teammates are who Reilly is thinking of when he gathers those postgame video clips featuring Duffner and texts them out. (And you have to include last week's "13-2!" when he bellowed the Bills' updated home playoff record.)
"My old teammates go crazy when they see those clips. He's the exact same guy," Reilly says. "They all love him and still reach out to him and they always have and not because they want tickets. He's got that same passion and energy for the game and the players."
Duffner has been doing this a long time. He was a Woody Hayes graduate assistant at Ohio State and remembers the night they got back from Ann Arbor after beating Michigan to go to the Rose Bowl and how Hayes took a bunch of roses to a Columbus hospital and personally handed them out.
And that is why Duffner is still doing it. The game. The people. The passion. Here's what he loves about these Bengals:
"I watch how hard they work, how hard they prepare, how hard they care about each other. It's a special group of people and I like to see a special group of people have success. The past two seasons this team has developed a refuse to lose attitude and great preparation mode and the fact they care so much about each other is tremendous."
HOARD EAGLES WEEKEND: Sunday's game for the AFC crown is so good that there's even a great matchup in the radio booths. Don't get mad that it involves another pair of broadcasters from the Syracuse factory of fame.
Both Dan Hoard, class of 1985, and Ian Eagle, class of 1990 and friends for 30 years, could double as one of coordinators Lou Anarumo's versatile defenders.
On Saturday, Hoard, the velvet voice of the Bengals and multiple Ohio Sports Broadcaster of the Year, takes his turn as the voice of the Bearcats working the University of Cincinnati basketball game at No. 3 Houston.
The ubiquitous Eagle, who is working the game for CBS and then the postgame for both consists of flying to Arrowhead with Hoard making his signature call the next day on the Bengals Radio Network (legendary analyst Dave Lapham is another Orangeman who has either played in or called all four Bengals AFC title games) while Eagle sets up in the Westwood One Radio booth to make the national call.
"A heavily-themed Cincinnati weekend," said Eagle this week. "The nice thing about it is I'm on the journey with Dan Hoard. Dan is one of those guys everybody looked up to with his professionalism and humor. It's no surprise he's killing it."
Eagle is also slaying it. In between working the CBS college basketball schedule and the Brooklyn Nets for the YES Network, he also called last year's AFC title game on radio in a season he celebrated his 25th year doing the NFL on CBS. By the time Eagle completed his 'Cuse curriculum, Hoard had already been mentored by Sean McDonough and been a mentor for Mike Tirico and Eagle was taking notes on all three.
"You're trying to find a path. What it might look like. There's no specific journey to follow and you have to figure it out as you go," Eagle said. "To see guys like Mike, Dan Hoard, Sean McDonough, that gave you the semblance of an idea that it could happen. It was very encouraging when guys that recently graduated were doing it the right way."
Talk about doing it the right way, that's how Eagle believes the Bengals have "broken the veneer," and become a legitimate elite NFL team.
"They built it the right way," Eagle said. "They built through the draft, they've been smart in free agency and while they've found the right mix, it also requires patience and they did that in this day and age when everyone wants to always change everything after a year."
Eagle and analyst Charles Davis have become a power tandem in NFL announcing circles and have had their share of production meetings with head coach Zac Taylor, his coordinators and several players.
"You can tell at a certain level they know they belong," Eagle said. "I understand they use that no respect thing as fuel and that's great. Whatever it takes. But I believe they're highly respected. It's like what it was with Kansas City a few years ago. They're no longer a nice little story. They're for real.
"The thing that resonates with me from those production meetings with Joe Burrow is he has this real sense of conviction of who he is and what the team is and while some could view it as arrogance, he backs up all of it. It's not bravado. He's unflappable. If you ask him a good question, you're usually going to get a good answer."
The only answer Hoard and Eagle need this weekend is an "on time" on their screen for the flight to Kansas City.
PITCHER BREAKS DOWN BURROW: Quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher had been on the Bengals coaching staff for three seasons before Taylor, arrived, so the club already considered him a rising star long before this week, when the Buccaneers confirmed they had virtually interviewed him for their offensive coordinator job.
Before that news broke, Pitcher was asked what he thinks is the biggest improvement Burrow has made between last year's AFC title game and this one:
"In terms of maybe the bigger picture and understanding when the right time to get the ball out of his hand really quickly as opposed when is the right time to extend the play and make something happen. When you have the ability to extend, the temptation is to always use it and I think with maturity and repetition and just an even better understanding of how teams are trying to attack us, he's been more judicious with how he uses that ability. It's still there to a great degree. He chooses his spots."
Exhibit A from last week's 27-10 win in Buffalo just may be that third-and-10 conversion to tight end Hayden Hurst. Everyone raved about Hurst's Gold Medal hurdle to get the first down and rightfully so. But Burrow quietly made it happen even by throwing behind the sticks.
"That's a recognition of 'Hey, I'm throwing this short of the sticks, but there's a major void in the coverage there. And if I get the ball in his hand fast enough, he's got the time to make one guy miss and get the first down," Pitcher said. "If look back at the game this past weekend, there were multiple plays where they presented us with challenging fronts and instead of making a rusher miss, he gets the ball out fast."
So while we loved how Burrow has escaped multiple times from Chiefs elite sacker Chris Jones in last year's wins, maybe he won't have to Sunday.
BETTCHER'S BET: First-year linebackers coach James Bettcher, who coached on the 49ers' third-ranked defense last season and was the coordinator of an Arizona defense that finished in the top six allowing yards from 2015-2017, including No. 2 in 2016, has an idea why this Bengals defense is elite and has allowed an average of 18.2 points in six postseason games the past two seasons.
"What goes on behind the scenes with this group is exceptional. It's special. Elite," Bettcher says. "The football conversation our players have with them just talking to each other, that's how you build great defenses. When it's player driven. It's all over the locker room."