12-4-03, 6:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Willie Anderson has played in seven more games, but no one has been a Bengal longer than center Rich Braham.
He appeared off waivers from Arizona, and a month after the Bengals claimed him he made his NFL debut smack in the middle of Blakemania in December of 1994. As a guard, Braham blocked for Corey Dillon's rookie-record 246-yard rushing game in 1997. As a center, he has blocked for two of the Bengals' four biggest rushing days in history.
He pass blocked for Boomer Esiason's last NFL touchdown pass, Chad Johnson's first touchdown catch, and the Jon Kitna-Matt Schobel connection against Pittsburgh that put the Bengals in first place in December for the first time in 13 years. While he blocked for Neil O'Donnell's winning pass to Carl Pickens in the last minute to beat Pittsburgh in 1998, he did it on a broken toe. The day after blocking for Johnson's first touchdown, he was diagnosed with a herniated neck disc, but kept playing.
"The biggest decision they made was inserting Richie into the lineup because we probably wouldn't be anywhere without him," Anderson said of Marvin Lewis move before the second game of the season.
"His direction, his leadership, his toughness. He's definitely the smartest offensive lineman, and he's one of the smartest on the team. He's a finance major. He has to know basically the same things Kitna has to know. You have to play smart football to win, and I think one of the reasons we can do so many things offensively is because Jon and Richie are two smart guys at crucial positions."
As usual Sunday in Baltimore, Braham is going to be in the middle of it all. His task is a daunting one. First, he must interpret the Ravens' dizzying array of formations and communicate it to his teammates in front of a half-mad crowd. Then he must make sure the best defender on the planet, Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, doesn't dominate. Braham must have done something right in the 34-26 victory over the Ravens Oct. 19. Lewis is averaging 16 tackles a game, but he had nine against the Bengals.
Here are five questions for Braham, at 33, on the brink of his 115th and biggest game in stripes: **
GH:** The pass protection has been so good lately. How do you work during the week with Jon so you both know what the other is doing?
RB: Every Thursday afternoon after practice we meet as an offense just to look at film. In the past, the offensive line would have a little extra meeting, but we would be by ourselves. This year, now we're with the receivers, backs, quarterbacks. Jon's not talking just to me. He's talking to Chad and Peter, too. "Hey, Chad, if they do this, this is what we're going to do. Hey Peter, on this play we'll do this." If we see anything different, Jon and I talk it over. The big thing on offense is that everyone has to know their assignment and know who to block. If you have guys coming free, you're not going to be very successful. **
GH:** What does a center have to recognize in order for the play to be blocked and do the Ravens have the most confusing set of schemes in the league?
RB: There are certain situations every week. Some weeks you have to recognize fronts. Some weeks you have to recognize where the linebackers are lining up, and you have to make the calls accordingly. And that's just against base defenses. Then you go to nickel situations, where they can mess with you a lot and have a lot of guys
in different places and you just have to account for guys, the guys up front and the right guys and protect. First thing I do in nickel is look to see how many defensive linemen they have on the field. Some teams play three, some play four, some even put five and run like a triple look where they cover the center and both guards. From that point, depending on the play, I'll make a call or Jon makes a call, we get on the same page, and everybody knows who everybody has and that's the key or it doesn't work.
The Ravens probably do have the most confusing defense. You have to put Pittsburgh up there because they run a 34. The Ravens will be in a four-man front, a 34, and whatever else they want to call it, they get in. They move guys all over and then they got the guy in the middle, Ray Lewis, and he's an incredible player. He's going to make big plays and try to create havoc. He's a great athlete, and he obviously loves the game of football. Even if I did know the key to (recognizing the scheme) what they do, I wouldn't tell you, anyways. **
GH:What is the one thing Marvin Lewis has brought to this team that was missing for so long and how satisfying is it to finally be on a winner?
RB:** He brought team unity. Guys believe in each other. In Pittsburgh, we could have hauled it in. A little over a minute left in the game, they score, break our backs. But we go out there and get a great kick return from Brandon and, at the worst, we're thinking field goal. Then we break a few plays, take two shots to win it and that's it. Guys don't want to be that guy watching film saying, "I made that mistake, that's why that happened."
It's totally different now. Instead of playing games just to be a spoiler late in the season, you're playing for something. No, I wouldn't say the food tastes different or anything like that. You're just upbeat. Your season is still going and every game gets bigger and bigger. I wouldn't say people are discovering me, but more people ask for your autograph. The more you win, the more they love you. **
GH:What do you in your spare time? We know you were a good high school athlete in Morgantown, W. Va., before staying home to play college at West Virginia University.
RB:** During the season, not a lot. Before, I was going to shooting once in awhile at a sporting place. The offensive line would go down there, a couple of d-linemen once in a while. During minicamps and stuff, I like to play some golf. Quarterbacks like playing, a lot of offensive linemen and some of the d-line like to play. I'm usually in the low-to-mid 90s. I'd bet you'd be surprised how many linemen play golf. Look at (guard) Scott Rehberg. He's 6-8 and you think, "He doesn't play golf," but he does.
Basketball is actually the sport I liked the most before I went into high school in 10th grade. West Virginia actually recruited me more off the basketball court than they did off football film because just of the level of competition compared to many other states. We were in Division 2A. I was a center in basketball. Small school and I was one of the largest guys there. At the time of my senior year, I was 6-4, 210 pounds. Made All-State a couple of times. **
GH:How do you cope with pain and what are you playing with now?
RB:** Football is a job. You go out and work and if you can go with it, you're going to go with it. Every football player in the league now and then has things that come up, some worse than others, but nothing that affects me. Knock on wood right now, I'm pretty good, and I like staying out of the training room.