The interminable offseason finally ends Thursday at 3 p.m. hard off the interstate next to Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals are hoping to catch an express east to New York's first Super Bowl.
As the faithful gather in downtown Cincinnati this weekend to usher in the most optimistic Bengals preseason in recent memory, there are a number of men that can wear the face of the franchise.
But try Gene (Geno) Atkins. He's young, he's humble, he's got more career sacks than sound bites, he's one of the elite players in the NFL, and the national spotlight has a hard time landing on him.
Sound like your Cincinnati Bengals?
"This is the strongest I've been going into a training camp," says Atkins, who was already the team's strongest strongman. "I remember what Tank Johnson told me when I was a rookie. Get as fast and as strong as you can going into training camp. Each year my goal is to make sure I'm stronger and faster than I was the year before."
That's got to be a little bit of an eyebrow-raiser for a foe like, say, the Steelers, who gave up two huge sacks to Atkins in Cincinnati's win in the AFC North Wild Wild Card on a day last December that Atkins earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week.
Sound like your Cincinnati Bengals, one of the pundits' favs after an offseason the club re-signed all its must free agents and earned another A draft?
"We've got a lot to prove. We're a hungry team. We have to prove we're not what everybody kind of perceives the Bengals. A one-and-done team. Or just mediocre. I think we're ready to show, basically, that we can be an elite team," Atkins says.
"Each year they talk about the Patriots. How they're a first-class organization. They win X amount of games. Baltimore. We strive to be great. We're trying to win a Super Bowl. I think the road to the Super Bowl is in the AFC North. We play in the toughest division. Pittsburgh. Baltimore. The Cleveland Browns. We beat each other up. The last two years, it's been close."
Atkins is already elite. There are those 12.5 sacks last season that led all NFL defensive tackles. There are his 23 career sacks in his first 48 games, an average of .48 per game. Warren Sapp, the defensive tackle inducted into the Hall of Fame next week, averaged .49 sacks in his 198 career games. John Randle, the Hall of Famer Atkins met moments before his NFL debut in the 2010 Hall of Fame game, had 22 sacks in his first three seasons. Sapp had 22.5.
And yet Atkins's people have turned to a marketing/public relations expert to elevate their client's profile.
"The name is causing a buzz, but they don't have a clue who he is," says Hayes Grooms. "We want Geno to remain exactly who he is. You can always articulate value for someone who does all the right things, is a true professional and a star in his sport who isn't an in-your-face guy."
Sound like your Cincinnati Bengals?
Here are a few clues on who is Gene (Geno) Atkins.
He's the son of a 10-year pro safety, got his lifelong nickname at age three from an NFL general manager, and is so well suited for the game that he didn't miss a day of workouts while attending the ESPYs this past weekend in Los Angeles.
Plus, even though the Bengals and agent Pat Dye are talking about an extension that figures to be a blockbuster if it happens, Atkins politely says he prefers not to talk about his contract.
"I'm trying to get better each and every day. After OTAs and minicamps, you're trying to perfect your craft," Atkins says. "I want to be the best I can be coming into training camp. I don't want to take a day off or miss a workout. That's one day I'm not getting better."
Atkins flew back from L.A. last Thursday after working Monday-Wednesday at API and showed up at the suburban Cincinnati gym where he works during the offseason on Friday. No surprise to Ignition Sports director Clif Marshall.
Marshall, a student of Bengals strength coach Chip Morton, has trained 185 players at Ignition in the last five years and Atkins has the best attendance of them all with the most hours logged in what Marshall calls "The lab."
"He is one of the few players I've seen get stronger after leaving a college strength program," Marshall says. "That is a direct reflection on his work in the offseason when no one is watching. Also to Chip Morton's strength program and to his work with me at Ignition. He doesn't speak much. He lets his work in here speak for itself."
Try dead-lifting 700 pounds. Squatting 600 pounds. Benching 500 pounds. Those first two numbers are personal bests from the last few months, when Atkins could have been wallowing in his second Pro Bowl.
And Marshall has had to shoo away some guys away from the heaviest weights in the gym.
"He's the only one that can lift them," Marshall says.
"My favorite thing is lifting," Atkins says of his workouts. "It's probably the most beneficial. That's where I get all my strength and power from. Whatever lifts I do I try to implement them in what I do on the field."
The people in the know bench-pressed his name during the offseason, when Atkins appeared on a couple of top 100 NFL players lists.
"He's the most complete pass-rushing tackle in the league," says an NFL scout. "He can bull-rush and he can also get to the edge of the guard and give him a couple of moves. He's like a huge heavyweight boxer. He's so compact and explosive, and there's nowhere to hit him."
But Atkins is not so quick to name himself as the NFL's best defensive tackle.
"Everybody's got an opinion," he says. "Some think Haloti Ngata. Some think Vince Wilfork. Even J.J. Watt. Everybody has an opinion. I think everybody has something they're very good at. Vince Wilfork is a monster stopping the run, pushing the pocket. I guess I would be known for rushing the passer. So everybody has their own little niche that makes them an elite-type player. Ngata can do both. He can rush the passer and he's good at stopping the run."
Atkins may not say much at work, but he's forever jawing back at his linemates that kiddingly harass him about his "duck walk," or being just 6-1 in a position group of giants. And he and his girlfriend of two years, a nursing student he met at Georgia, spend hours talking about the news headlines that flash about on his ever-present IPad.
"He's a good friend," she says. "He's very loyal to his family and friends."
Not to mention his two turtles that he loves, Henry and Rex, as well as any other animal he might come across.
"He does nice things. I guess you could say we go to a lot of concerts, but he took me to see Beyoncé because I wanted to go," she says.
Atkins also let her drive a BMW during a test drive when they were in L.A.
"We only had time for one of us," she says. "He let me go."
Atkins reached out to his people and mentioned he'd like to go to the ESPYs and Grooms thought that was rather significant.
"He did the whole thing," Grooms says. "Pre-party, post-party. I think he's starting to feel confident about what he's accomplished. I think he wanted to be there and take it all in and rub shoulders with the best of the best."
They took a tour of Beverly Hills, went to the Playboy Mansion, and while mingling on the red carpet he got a chance to see the guys from his favorite NBA team, the Miami Heat.
"Geno is the most regular guy you'll ever meet," his girlfriend says. "He's not flashy, but he enjoys traveling to different places and hanging out."
But the gym is never far away. Atkins's father says he has an inner, self-motivation. Grooms thinks he's driven by seeing the results of hard work on Sundays.
Atkins didn't play football until high school, but he took to it, he says, because he had success.
"I started out as an offensive guard and then they put me at linebacker," he says. "Linebacker was cool, I was in the middle, but I guess they didn't think I had the eyes for it. So I ended up at defensive end and tackle."
But that doesn't quite explain the devotion.
"I love playing this game, honestly," he says. "Each and every year they're drafting and getting players to replace you. So I've got to make sure if want to keep playing, I'm getting better to the best of my ability."
The eyes, it seem, have it now.