Bengals Vets Start Last Week of Spring Meetings

Trey Hopkins in the middle of it all.
Trey Hopkins in the middle of it all.

The Bengals veterans began their last week of virtual meetings Monday and the coaches get the rookies for another week in what is shaping up to be one of their most well-prepared teams when it comes to the playbook currently on file.

But special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons would take the last month on the computer and trade it for those reps where he races down the field in the middle of a punt or a kick scrum while barking techniques as his guys shoulder poles to emphasize the proper leverage.

"I think we've gotten a ton done. Just from a practical meeting standpoint in terms of installation of stuff we're probably as far as long as we've ever been," said Simmons, whose stint overseeing the kicking game stretches back to 2003 and tape decks.

"But I would trade all that for some time on the field. I would trade all this individual meeting time we had to get more time on the field. But that's not part of the process right now."

When head coach Zac Taylor dismisses them Thursday and then the rookies a week later, everyone crosses their fingers and hopes when they talk again it's going to be face-to-face when training camp begins in late July.

His biggest challenge is to take 30 players pulling into the Paul Brown Stadium parking lot for the first time for practice and get them to mesh in less than two months for the regular-season opener in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

But the Bengals remind themselves that while many other teams don't have that turnover, everybody is pretty much in the same boat. And they take solace in the fact that the material they've covered is not only vast, but it's being doled out by the same coordinators they had last offseason.

That marks the first time in three years the Bengals have studied the same offensive and defensive playbooks in back-to-back offseasons. That means something.

Just ask the offensive line. With line coach Jim Turner and assistant Ben Martin in front of the screen, their players are also dealing with the same position coaches for a second straight offseason for the first time in three years.

"It seems like forever," said veteran center Trey Hopkins, the offense's computer hard drive in his fifth season.

This spring the offensive line picked up where it left off during the second half of last season, when the running game finished in the top 10.

"You miss the physical reps, but as far as sitting through things, it was pretty efficient," Hopkins said. "Now we're an older team. We're able to nail down more minute things. We're not just installing new things. We're looking at why something didn't work as opposed to last year when we had to go through games and see what to adjust."

Simmons, Hopkins and all Bengals realize they can't replace the chemistry they could have stirred on the field and developed off the field.

"It's different not to be around these guys physically. Read their body mannerisms. Read how they react. See how they carry themselves on a day-to-day basis. All those things you miss out on until we have them in place," Simmons said. "The unique thing is everyone is dealing with the same issues."

But there's also the sense they've done what they can in the jaws of the new normal.

"Zac has done a good job putting together a bunch of things to get the personalities to come out," Simmons said, "and break up the monotony of meeting just to meet. It's always good to get to know your teammate. We're doing our best to get the most out of it."

Hopkins says whether it's college or pros, the real training camp comes in pre-season games. The pass rushers get to finish. The linemen find out if they're conditioned. The little game muscles, like down in the ankles, strain. He says it's always sloppy during those first few days of training camp. No matter what. He also thinks the virtuals may have been a break for the kids.

"The advantage for the younger guys is they're not as overwhelmed with the physical right now," Hopkins said. "It's a great opportunity for the rookies to at least know what your assignment is. You might not know the technique, but you know the assignment. There's less to think about from that aspect."

There's been some talk the preseason could be sliced from four to two preseason games. Simmons speaks for all Bengals everywhere when he says, "When you're a team like us with a new quarterback, I would think you'd want to get him out there under center as much as possible."

This may be a one-in-a-hundred-years event, but Simmons kind of went through this in the 2011 lockout when was a labor problem snafu. Back then, none of the coaches could talk to players, never mind meet, before training camp started and a rookie quarterback (Andy Dalton) led them to the playoffs.

"There's some comparison. We won't see these guys until July," Simmons said. "We don't even know what that's going to look like yet. In '11, we didn't either and there was no end in sight to the lockout. It's kind of similar. It's going to be very difficult."

The Bengals didn't know until a few days ago that they wouldn't get players on the field before next month. So they've had a couple of different plans and one of them is even when they practice, they could still meet virtually.   

"We've been preparing for this the whole offseason," Simmons said. "The difference is, we don't know how it's going to get applied in practice and games. We haven't done that part yet."

In some ways, it's pretty normal. Since this is the last week before the break for the vets, figure one day this week won't be used for meetings but for team building.

Yet it's all very abnormal. You don't hear a lot about guys talking about vacations.

"I'll be staying pretty close to home," Hopkins said.

There's been some whispers that maybe this is the future. That the offseason is only going to be virtual.

That seems too abnormal.

"I hope not," Hopkins said.