The questions now are if Leon Hall and the Bengals can live without each other.
Hall is the Bengals' best cover cornerback, the man that allows defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to play man-to-man and open up his bottomless bag of gadgets. Now it's not so bottomless. Although, how many defenses have two first-round cornerbacks in Kelly Jennings and Adam Jones that just happen to be available on the depth chart?
And Hall has never missed a game in his life. Starting when he was good enough to become the Vista High School standout his sophomore year back in California and winding all the way through the rough Big Ten at Michigan and the tumble AFC North in Cincinnati. Admitting it hasn't hit him yet, he leaned on crutches as he left Paul Brown Stadium late Monday afternoon cutting a forlorn figure.
One of the more popular players on the team and one of its more respected leaders, Hall showed why Monday when he attended the team meeting, defensive meeting, and secondary meeting.
"I'm still part of this team," Hall said. "Being here is a big part of my life. Being here every day. Some of these guys in that room are my best friends. It's going to kind of (stink) not seeing them every day. Seeing Zimmer's smile every day.
"I'll be coming in for sure. Definitely if I can come in here I will."
That probably won't be happening for a couple of weeks. Hall says he'll get surgery this week to reattach his Achilles tendon and he won't be able to be on his feet. Just when he'll be able to be back on his feet in uniform is anyone's guess, but head coach Marvin Lewis indicated Monday that given Hall's age (27 on Dec. 9) and his work ethic, the Bengals expect him to be back to his old self by training camp. The doctors have told him he can get back to where he was physically.
Hall says he was all by himself on the PBS Field Turf late in the first half of Sunday's 24-17 loss to the Steelers when he planted, drove on his left foot, felt like he got kicked, and then felt a burning sensation. He says he's not giving himself a timeline to return, but his goal is to be back 100 percent for the next training camp and while the 100 percent could be a stretch, it looks like he has a good chance to be back for camp's first snap if the rehab goes well.
"I'm just going to do whatever the doctor says and I'm sure I'll be back sooner than they expect me to be back," Hall said.
Secondary coach Kevin Coyle is going to want him around after a season of watching Hall and the other starter, Nate Clements, work their veteran magic in the position group.
"I might get my coaching pants on. Maybe a little hat, I don't know," Hall said. "They'll give me a whistle. We'll see. Definitely. We're going to have some guys that for the most that have experience. Some young guys are going to have to step up obviously. I'm definitely going to do my part to bring them along."
One of his first projects is no doubt Brandon Ghee, the second-year cornerback promoted from the practice squad to take his place on the roster. By all accounts, Ghee has third-round talent, which is where he was selected in the 2010 draft. But he has been trying to combine it with the rock-ribbed technique of Hall and Clements.
"He always had the ability," Hall said. "Coincidentally, it just seems recently he has been practicing really well. He's got a good grasp of the technique. He's been knowing the defense for a while now, but he's just really been improving.
"He can run. The ability is there. It's always been there. But I think, especially this year, it's just starting to show up a lot more. Especially when we're watching the film of practice, or we're just out there at practice."
But it's just not Ghee. The new starter opposite Clements—Kelly Jennings—is a former first-round pick chased out of Seattle by the Pete Carroll regime. He can run, is smart and is as conscientious as Hall and Clements, but the question is going to be if he can hold up in man-to-man coverage. The same with Jones, the other first-round pick. Not because he can't do it athletically, but because he hasn't played in a year and the Bengals don't even know when he'll be ready with his hurting hamstring.
Certainly the Bengals are better equipped than most to handle such an injury with the Jennings trade and the presence of Jones, but they have to get Jennings up to speed and Jones healthy.
Coyle, of course, isn't going to say that the Bengals are now going to become a zone team. But he admits Hall's absence makes them different. They went through some of that when cornerback Johnathan Joseph suffered injuries in '08 and '10.
"I don't know if its rip up what you do. You might have to be selective in certain things," Coyle said. "We really hadn't gotten to the point in the past. When Johnathan went down we did a lot more role-playing of players. Really this season we haven't had to do much of that. I don't think it will change dramatically. We have to keep coaching them up and put them into situations that we feel comfortable with.
"We may be more selective in putting (the younger players) in situations we may not feel comfortable yet. We do what we do. That's what makes our defense good. I don't think we're going to dramatically alter that."
As head coach Marvin Lewis indicted Monday, it hasn't been an easy transition for Jennings. Just as the season started he got traded to a new team (for defensive tackle Clinton McDonald), but kept his tight hamstring. If that didn't keep him off the field before the bye week, the opposing two-receiver sets did. When he came back after the bye, he gave up some plays in Seattle and got beat for a touchdown in Tennessee before Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace made a 12-yard catch on him in Sunday's winning drive.
But the long-ball Steelers didn't complete a ball longer than 13 yards in the second half and Coyle thinks Jennings is getting better and better with each snap.
"Fortunately we have him. It's a different role for him than what he was accustomed to," Coyle said of Jennings. "He was a starting player for three to four years out there in Seattle and to get used to a backup role I think even in the game yesterday he started to play better the longer he was in the game. Hopefully he can progress as his snaps increase."
Coyle thinks his people have the versatility to move from side to side.
"Nate has started on both sides of the field. Kelly … Adam has started on both sides," he said. "We flipped them around a little bit in preseason. All of these guys can play on either side."
Coyle hates to sound so cold about it. But moving on is a way of life.
"I learned this a long time ago. You don't dwell on the guys who aren't playing, you focus on the guys you have to play with. I even tell the players that and I don't mean it in a callous way. You can't. We have a job to do and we have to figure out how to get it done. Who's the next man up and we have a contest coming up in six days we have to get ready for."
But life is a lot different now for Hall and Coyle's defense.