Defensive back Keiwan Ratliff literally never took off his Bengals uniform once he was cut back in the spring. It wasn't because of anything sentimental. It's just that all that stuff equipment managers Jeff Brickner and Adam Knollman gave him came in handy when he moved on to the UFL.
"(The UFL) gives you shoulder pads and helmets and that's it," said Ratliff, surfacing Wednesday for the third time as a Bengal. "I was lucky with all the stuff Brick gave me. I couldn't imagine coming right out of college to play in the league."
The differences go beyond head to foot. If you think the NFL is an offensive league, the UFL is a glorified seven-on-seven drill. Ratliff says the restrictions on blitzing and zone drops make it a vanilla league, but he was still able to pick off three balls, two for touchdowns while playing for the Florida Tuskers. That's one more score than he had in 73 games for the Bengals, Colts and Steelers.
(The UFL limits defenses to six pass rushers. Four players must start the play with their hand on the ground and rush the passer.)
Ratliff, three weeks removed from the UFL title game, is just glad to be back with a chance to add another year of NFL service in the last three games even if it did take a roster tsunami to get him and safety Marvin White back on the roster. He figured he'd get a call, but not from these guys. "You figure when they cut you, bring you back, then cut you again, they're done with you," he said. Ratliff agrees with secondary coach Kevin Coyle. He has never seen eight defensive backs on injured reserve at once.
"Not even five," he said.
Ratliff, a Bengals second-round pick in 2004, never became a true starter and his lack of speed rapidly became a detriment in his first run with the Bengals that ended in September 2007 with the drafting of Leon Hall. But his brains and versatility kept him around not only Cincinnati, but put him on a playoff club in Indy in 2008 and with the Steelers last season. When safety Tom Nelson went down last year in the regular-season finale, Ratliff signed up for the Wild Card Game, making him one of six Bengals on the roster for both the '05 and '09 playoffs.
Now that Nelson is down again with an illness, Ratliff may end up in his slot position. Or anywhere else for that matter. Ratliff can play any spot in the secondary and he did during Wednesday's practice. Coyle has always loved his knowledge of the game ever since he drove to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, to talk to Ratliff before that '04 draft.
"He's multi-faceted. He did a little bit of everything for us out there today," Coyle said after practice. "He's a gym rat. He's always been a gym rat. He's always in good shape. He's always doing something because he can't sit still, whether it's playing football, basketball, whatever it is."
Ratliff doesn't think lining up against the Browns is going to be all that difficult for him Sunday.
"Honestly, in my mind I've been playing every Sunday," he said, "so to be able to go out there and actually play, it's going to be fun for me and not hard. It's do or die for me."
As head coach Marvin Lewis grimy joked Wednesday, the Bengals are down to their "17, 18, 19" DBs. Even Jonathan Wade, the guy they picked up off the street last month to start two of the last three games sat out Wednesday's practice with a knee injury. The only DBs who were on the roster for the preseason finale are their starting corners, Hall and Johnathan Joseph, and Joseph (ankle) was limited Wednesday. That leaves cornerback Fred Bennett, also picked up off the street last month.
Enter Ratliff and White. Both cut twice by the Bengals, they are suddenly a sight for sore eyes.
"At this stage of the season, where we are, to get two guys that are familiar with your system is going to help us," Coyle said. "What we're looking for is the best chance to win the game. These two guys can line up for us Sunday and compete and give us a shot."
It's not a throwaway game for Ratliff, who didn't think the Bengals would be playing one of those meaningless December games here.
"When I got released before training camp, I thought to myself, 'Man, I just missed out on probably one of the best Cincinnati teams we've had in a long time,' " Ratliff said. "To see it from afar is very surprising. Very shocking."
He's used to the PBS cold. When he was a rookie his 49-yard punt return bailed out the Bengals in the fourth quarter against the Giants in a day-after-Christmas freeze. It doesn't look like he'll have to do that this Sunday. A high school quarterback and college receiver, Ratliff says he's willing to do anything.
"If they want me to kick, I'll kick," he said.
He stopped short. The Bengals are working on their third kicker of the season.
"Whatever they want me to do," he said. "Never burn any bridges."