Bengals left end Carlos Dunlap, soon to be his franchise's all-time sack leader, has eyes on taking down something more important than quarterbacks and more insidious than stats.
He felt its sting long before this July and far away from that patch of grass somewhere in Fort Lauderdale as he tried to get in some field work while the pandemic put its stranglehold on the gyms of Florida.
Discrimination may have been evident often enough down through the years to him, but his group of about five black NFL players were appalled that it was at this moment in time that the park ranger tossed them out and let the white group keep roaming on the grass.
"It was very frustrating because it was the day after a lot of this stuff had been happening," Dunlap recalled after Monday's practice. "It was during the protests. It was all over all media and for us to be singled-out, we were compelled to speak out so we asked them, 'Why did you demand that we leave the field and go to another field when we explained that we were almost done, literally five-10 minutes, versus the other group that was able to finish the workout?' And he pretty much watched and damn-near cheered them on."
Two months later and it still hurts. It always hurts. But it doesn't surprise Dunlap. Yet he is emboldened by the surge of activism stemming from the summer protests and he's hopeful the NFL and the Bengals take the next leap.
He took note of the Bengals formation of a Positive Community Impact Committee spearheaded back in June by the team's new director of strategy and engagement Elizabeth Blackburn, the great granddaughter of Bengals founder Paul Brown.
"They've done a great job creating a committee and putting together a plan. Elizabeth gets it," Dunlap said. "She's been adamant about putting together a plan, about getting into the community and making a difference. But we still need everyone to get on board. Without everyone on board, it's just a plan, a dream, or a temporary fix. It's not going to be a long-term solution as what's needed."
During the summer, Blackburn put together a committee she's steering with her mother, Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, about ten players, director of player relations Eric Ball and some department heads throughout Paul Brown Stadium.
Last week the committee met via Zoom to continue the players' decision-making process on which civic groups to bestow the club's commitment of $250,000 in the cause of social justice. The Bengals have been talking to groups ranging from a company trying to connect poor students with school internet to a firm that fosters and funds minority-owned businesses.
"We're taking the proper steps and trying to make sure we shed light on the situation," said veteran tight end C.J. Uzomah. "The owners are in there and players in that committee are asking a lot of the owners to help us with that, to help meet with us when we do certain things and they're all on board. From my perspective and this is just from my own perspective I think they're taking the right steps and trying to help us move in the right direction."
Dunlap says he'd like to take the discussion right to the top to Bengals president Mike Brown. He'd like to hear some more from the team.
"I don't want them to check the box. I want them to do something they are passionate about. That way, they're physically and emotionally invested in it as we all are," Dunlap said. "I just wanted to have that conversation with him personally, 1-on-1. And however that conversation goes once we leave the room, I leave that alone from that angle and I'll go about it the way that I feel like is best to help my community and to do long-term change from there. Personally, I feel compelled with the platform that we have. We have a great opportunity to make the biggest ripple effects."
Brown, 85, has a long history of having an open door for his players. He knows the subject well. Once during the team's visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame about a decade ago, he showed a group of players the exhibit with the contracts produced by his father, Paul Brown, and signed by Bill Willis and Marion Motley that helped break the color line in pro football with the Cleveland Browns.
Dunlap knows this is a difficult time to even meet, but he's been a Bengal for 11 seasons and he knows Mike Brown is as approachable as they come.
"If I asked him in person, I think he might honor that," Dunlap said. "So that's good a call to action that I should do. But we're in different tiers right now obviously with what's going on. He's an older man, so I want to respect his space and social distance. It's kind of tough because I don't want to do it on no Zoom. I would like to sit at a table."
Dunlap is perplexed that people may be upset that he has voiced his feelings.
"I don't understand," Dunlap said. "I am a football player, but the reason why I work so hard and the same passion I have on the field came from me being raised in those communities that are being neglected. And they're calling for our help. So who am I to turn my back on my community, where I'm from and how I was raised?"
The start to that answer, the Bengals hope, is the committee. Uzomah, who is a member, calls the Positive Community Impact Committee, "The Get Stuff Done Committee."
"It's small steps is what it takes," Uzomah said. "I think everything happens in small baby steps. I think that's what we're trying to do right now is find a few things that we can in the community locally, with the owners with the players with the coaches with everyone in the building to show we're a united front."
Dunlap, it seems, has no problem going to the front after getting pushed to the side on a patch of grass in the summer.
JOE PULLS IT OUT: Joe Burrow did what he does best Monday and bounced back from something gone awry.
Burrow, the rookie quarterback who has taken training camp by storm, had been cooled off on Sunday by a stout pass rush. But on Monday morning he was back responding by sifting 16 of 20 passes (stats supplied by Bengals radio maven Dan Hoard) in 11-on-11 and that included a practice walk-off fourth-and-six touchdown pass to wide receiver Auden Tate at the corner of the goal line from 28 yards to lift the offense against many of the No. 1 defenders in the two-minute drill.
As Paul Dehner, Jr., the estimable Bengals columnist for The Athletic observed. "I could have written 1,000 words on just that. Fourth-and-six when he could have played it safe and instead dropped a dime on the pylon."
And, as if to add to some kind of burgeoning southeast Ohio legend, before all that when the drive started Burrow told them exactly how they were going to score.
"He said a few things just to get us motivated," Uzomah said. "He said we're going to do this real quick and see what happens and then I will check us in and out of this play if we need to and I think we executed pretty flawlessly going down the stretch and knowing we needed a touchdown."
Burrow shook off cornerback Darius Phillips' diving pass defense on the previous snap, where Phillips pretty much came flying to the sideline to knock the pass virtually out of the hands of wide receiver Mike Thomas.
On fourth down, Burrow went fail safe, not safe, and went upstairs down the right side. And who else but Tate got behind Phillips and in front of safety Jessie Bates to pluck Burrow's pass as he was falling down in the end zone?
Uzomah says Burrow sensed they wanted the kill.
"We don't want to hear the defense talking crap the rest of the day, because it's the last period," Uzomah said. "We know the defense is going to jaw the entire rest of the day. We have tomorrow off and I don't want to hear their voices, so we treated that like let's go win this and I think that just shows the confidence that he has in his playmakers, in his receivers and his tight end and his line to get everything picked up and make a play."
Tate continued his monster camp. After point guarding it to Thomas and slot receiver Tyler Boyd to kick start the two-minute drive from about the offense's own 30, Burrow found Tate wide open on a side-line route for about 15 yards that put the ball inside the 25.
The drive hiccupped when right end Sam Hubbard appeared to work left tackle Jonah Williams for a first- down sack, but after a quick, short throw to Thomas against a blitz (running back Giovani Bernard did a nice job against strong safety Vonn Bell), the stage was set.
Uzomah and the rest just can't get enough of Seamless Joe.
"He's a beast. He's an absolute beast. He's an animal out there," Uzomah said. "You see college. You see what's going on, you watch him beat your alma mater and do so in convincing fashion and you're like, 'Dang, this sucks,' but he's that guy. He's making all the right reads. He's getting us in and out of all the right protections and making all the right checks and certain checks I didn't even know we were allowed to check into.
"He's like, 'Why not? Go out there and do this. Come in here and do this.' It's been a lot of fun, honestly. It's been a lot of fun to build a relationship with him, to build that chemistry with him and see how he operates and how he wants certain routes run on certain coverages. He's the real deal, I will say that."
FLOPPING FRED: Yes, backup right tackle Fred Johnson is having a good camp. So good that offensive line coach Jim Turner gave him some snaps at starting right guard Monday in a kind of a rotation with starter Xavier Su'a-Filo. Johnson played some guard in college at Florida and took a couple of snaps there in practice with the Bengals last year. But he had no sniff he was going in there Monday and he looked good enough that Turner says not to count out the fiery 6-8, 325-pound Johnson in any kind of Opening Day competition.
In his handful of snaps there were no missed assignments and he made his presence felt in a suddenly gargantuan middle with the 320-pound Michel Jordan at left guard.
"Fred has got some serious talent, he's enormous, he's very smart, he can pick it up," Turner said. "Is he our best right tackle? No. But he's getting experience playing a lot against the 1s. He's improving."
The starting tackles, Jonah Williams at left and Bobby Hart at right, are their best tackles, Turner says, but he also says Johnson is pushing them both as the swing tackle. Along with the starters and Johnson, Turner says guards Billy Price and Alex Redmond and rookie tackle Hakeem Adeniji are also in conversations.
And Johnson is as interesting as you can get. Here's a guy that didn't play varsity until his senior year of high school in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Turner can envision him playing both guards and tackles spots.
"He's a guy with limited experience, so every snap is gold for him," Turner said.
PHILLIPS RE-SURFACES: Cornerback Darius Phillips just makes plays. Yes, Tate did get behind him on that last play, but look what he did the snap before that, slapping the ball out of Thomas' hands? And just a few minutes before that, Phillips made a play on a ball that he tapped to safety Jessie Bates III for an interception.
Early on in camp, it looked like Phillips, the third-year wunderkind who led the Bengals with four interceptions last year despite playing just 109 snaps, was lining up with the ones to get the first chance to statr opposite William Jackson III and replace injured Trae Waynes.
LeShaun Sims, a fifth-year player who is a free-agent pickup from the Titans, has been getting many of those snaps. But on Monday Phillips was running with the ones again and making his presence felt as the camp competition heated up.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Dunlap and running back Joe Mixon didn't practice Monday with what head coach Zac Taylor called "minor" injuries … Rush end Carl Lawson was also in that group ... Linebacker Jordan Evans, who has been looking very good in his fourth training camp, was carted off during one-on-ones with what is believed to be a hamstring injury.