Updated: 8/4/09, 12:25 a.m.
If you had asked Carson Palmer before Monday morning's second-to-last play of practice, he would have said tight end Reggie Kelly was one of two or three guys the Bengals offense just couldn't lose.
It happened quickly and discreetly, but it was devastating. Kelly, one of the most highly-regarded players in the locker room and one of Palmer's most reliable pass blockers, was lost for the season when he simply shuffled a few steps across the line of scrimmage and ruptured his Achilles tendon on one of the last plays of the workout on the lower practice field at Georgetown College.
"It makes me sick to my stomach," Palmer said after the Bengals announced Monday night Kelly would undergo surgery Wednesday. "All that he's invested and committed, and he's such a good guy and a great player. It's awful."
The Bengals expect the surgeons to confirm what they fear: A season-ending rupture.
A major reason Kelly was viewed with such value is the help he was going to give No. 1 pick Andre Smith and Kelly's backup, second-year Anthony Collins at right tackle. With the Bengals signing a tackle for camp fodder Monday, all indications are that Smith is nowhere near a deal.
Kelly, in the final year of a three-year deal, had his most catches in six years as a Bengal last year with 31 for 207 yards. In 86 Bengals starts he caught 115 balls and his three touchdowns came in '03, '05 and '06.
There are no indications the Bengals are looking to replace him on the roster right now. They certainly won't pursue a long-in-the-tooth tight end like Bubba Franks, but they could pick up one off the waiver wire around Cutdown day.
Kelly has been such a staple in the Marvin Lewis era with his ability to pass protect like another tackle and his quiet leadership skills as leader of the Bengals chapel. The Bengals have four tight ends behind Kelly, but Ben Utecht and third-rounder Chase Coffman aren't known as blockers. Dan Coats has had a good camp, but he's played very little as a tight end. Darius Hill is a rookie free agent out of Ball State.
"Great blocker; a veteran guy you can count on," said center Kyle Cook of Kelly after the morning workout. "Look at what he's done in this league for so many years. Smart guy, knew what he was suppsed to do and he could obviously catch the ball. The only thing it does now is it opens up a spot for one of these young guys."
The Bengals not only have to adjust their schemes, they need some young players to come along fast, particularly the three players listed behind Kelly on a depth chart that offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski now says "is fluid." Kelly was the X factor in chess matches against division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore because he played as big as a tackle and was versatile enough to be used as a fullback to counter the matchups concocted by pressure gurus Dick LeBeau and Rex Ryan.
Ryan, once the defensive coordinator of the Ravens and now head coach of the Jets, told friends that he was hoping Kelly would sign with Arizona when he became a free agent before the 2007 season because he was so difficult to beat. But Kelly re-signed and actually caught his Bengals-best 31 balls in his sixth season in Cincinnati in '08.
"I would hope he's here," said Bratkowski of a replacement. "We obviously lost our No. 1 blocking tight end. Reggie was used in situations where we brought him into the backfield as a back to protect on third down when we knew people were going to get matchups, like some of the things Baltimore did with (Terrell) Suggs getting matched on a back or Pittsburgh with some of their outside backers. We've got to find somebody else."
It's not like the Bengals haven't invested in the position. They gave Utecht $9 million for three years last season in free agency and they used their second third-round pick this year on Missouri's Coffman, the NCAA's all-time leading receiver among tight ends.
But both are known primarily as pass catchers and aren't nearly the blocker that Kelly is. Daniel Coats, a third-year player switched from tight end to fullback last year, has had a good camp and provides some versatility, but he's got 14 career catches.
Bratkowski said it's too soon to write off any of them for blocking because they have shown improvement, particularly Coffman, a second generation NFL player. Coffman's father, Paul, was a classic 1980s tight end who had to block although he was more of a receiver. Chase is the new wave tight end who never put his hand down on the ground to block in high school or college.
"I probably have seen as much visible progress every practice as I've seen in any player I've watched as a rookie," Bratkowski said of Coffman. "You've got to understand his bloodlines. His father was one of the great workers in the game of football and the kid has that mentality."
Coffman was as down as anybody. He said Kelly spent time with him before and after practice working on his steps, a built-in tutor for a kid who is just now getting into a three-point stance. Because of a broken foot, Coffman didn't begin practicing until the last week of OTAs in June.
He said the hardest thing about learning to block the NFL way "is just doing it for the first time and getting used to it."
Bratkowski said another option is to keep two fullbacks. That would mean just two tight ends, presumably Utecht and Coffman. Jeremi Johnson, the incumbent fullback for much of this decade who lost his job last year to Coats, looks like he's making a run to regain his job. And then there is Coats, who has played both tight end and fullback, and has made some nifty catches the last couple of days.
Asked who is now going to help block Suggs, Bratkowski asked, "Is it Ben, Daniel? Is it Jeremi Johnson or whoever our fullback is? A bigger bodied guy? ... The story has yet to be written."
At 32, Kelly may have penned the last lines of a solid, unsung career. But Bratkowski gave him a pretty good epitaph.
"We lost a very good player, a true professional and a real gentleman," he said. "Marvin (Lewis) had talked to the team that first night of training camp that good teams do overcome adversity and he said, 'I don't know what that adversity is going to be down the road. ' Well, we just faced our first step in adversity and everyone has to pick it up."
Maybe a sign was offered in the last two minutes of practice. Both Utecht and Coffman made fine diving catches. Earlier in the red zone period, they both caught touchdowns.
NIGHT PRACTICE NOTES
» SAM linebacker Rashad Jeanty, to protect his lower leg, and defensive end Robert Geathers, off of microfracture knee surgery, both had the night off.
» The kick returners got some work and rookie running back Bernard Scott continues to look elusive and quick. He made one really good run in the red zone when he ran all the way into the end zone without getting touched after a severe cutback.
» Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco continued to make some tough catches. The crowd of about 1,000 held its breath when he launched into the air on a pass over the middle and landed on the back of his shoulders on a pass from Palmer. He held on.
» Cornerback Geoff Pope outfought wide receiver Jerome Simpson for a jump ball in the end zone on a red-zone snap.
» Former Bengals kicker Doug Pelfrey, mastermind of Kicks for Kids, hosted a group of about 40 underprivileged children from Greater Cincinnati at practice. They arrived via a luxury bus, where they watched highlights of last season, watched the kickers work before practice, and listened to a speech from Bengals all-time scorer Jim Breech after dining under the tent on the side of the end zone. The kids also got to talk to current Bengals kicker Shayne Graham after practice.
» Fullback J.D. Runnels has decided to go with his given name of J.D. Runnels Jr., on rosters and such. Per NFL rule, the league doesn't allow Jrs. on uniform nameplates.
» Carson Palmer appeared on the field dressed for the Monday morning practice. The Bengals also work Monday at 7 p.m. Palmer said following practice that he suffered from bronchitis the past few days but after taking antibiotics he feels much better. He felt well enough to be signing autographs.
"I can't remember when I've been sick," he said, needing to back away from the questions to cough. "I caught it. My wife's had it. Then my kids passed on the bronchitis to me. It's not fun when it goes through the whole family because at some point everybody feels bad. Just got me on a bunch of antibiotics and been resting the last two days and feeling better.
"I'm glad to be out of that dorm room, out of confinement. Slept as much as possible and passed the bug."
» Safety Marvin White, coming off reconstructive knee sugery, sat out the morning session but is expected to be on the field for the evening practice. This was the first practice White had missed after participating in the first four sessions of camp.
» Some highlights from the morning practice:Running back Kenny Watson is known as an excellent blocker, a guy that does a nice job picking up the blitz but rookie linebacker Rey Mauauluga went right through him early in a blitz pickup drill ... Rookie running back Bernard Scott, who must do these things without the ball to make the club, staved off middle linebacker Dhani Jones nicely ... Utecht beat safety Roy Williams on a route over the middle in a one-on-one coverage drill, but Williams came back to pop running back DeDe Dorsey after he was initially stopped ... Scott, Brian Leonard and Cedric Benson are all backs that had some nice inside runs where they were able to break out.
» The Bengals on Monday signed rookie tackle Augustus Parrish of Kent State. Parrish started the last three seasons for Kent State at LT. He signed with the New Orleans Saints as a college free agent on May 6, and was released by the Saints on June 4.