BY GEOFF HOBSON
By now, defensive end John Copeland figured he'd have a few Pro Bowl berths and been in at least one Super Bowl. Oh, it's been a nice, solid career, but injuries have helped keep it low profile.
"Very quiet, not exactly what I wanted," said Copeland the other day as he prepared for his eighth Bengals' training camp. "I'm not giving up yet on that. I think I've got five more years."
Copeland turns 30 in the season's fourth week, but when he showed up for minicamp this year, it felt like Pop Warner ball all over again. The free-agent signing of left end Vaughn Booker moved Copeland from left end to right end, and suddenly he was trying to line up with his left hand on the ground instead of the right.
For a lineman, that's like a fighter trying to learn to punch lefty on the eve of the big fight. OK, Rocky did it, but that was a movie.
"I've never played with the left hand down and I just feel kind of out of place," Copeland said. "I think with time and a little practice I can get over it. I don't expect problems, but it's a big change. It doesn't seem like much, but if you don't do it right, your steps are messed up and your timing is messed up. When I put my left hand on the ground, it feels weak. It feels awkward, but I've been working on it and I've got training camp."
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The big switch is that Copeland will primarily be on the right side in passing situations. He could be on either side in the Bengals' base alignment, on the opposite side of the tight end. And he had a pretty good season last year moving from side-to-side in the base.
Copeland had big plays in all four of Cincinnati's victories, highlighted by a mega game in Pittsburgh. When the Steelers could have gotten back in the game at any point in the second half, he dropped running back Richard Huntley for a two-yard loss on third-and-two at the Bengals 31 and teamed with fellow end Michael Bankston to sack quarterback Mike Tomczak on third down as well as a fourth-down play.
Copeland, the club's top draft pick in 1993 as the fifth player taken, wonders why there hasn't been more games like that. He's a straight shooter and won't run from theories.
"I think you can look at a lot of things," Copeland said. "You can point to me not working out as hard as I am now. You can point to not being surrounded by the people to get me there. But I've got high hopes for this team and for me this time around. We went out and got some good players on this line."
With Copeland, you always have to start with injuries. His career was summed up back in the spring of 1998. He had just signed a five-year, $15 million contract with a workout bonus and during his fourth workout he ruptured his left Achilles tendon jumping over a hurdle.
He made it back for the last five games and played mainly on passing downs. Last year he started all 16 games while playing through a sprained left shoulder and pulled thigh muscle. This offseason he's been slowed by arthroscopic surgery to remove bone spurs from his left ankle, but he should be ready for next week's start of training camp.
Despite the procedure, Copeland has been one of the constants during the offseason workouts. The training staff gets a little nervous when he steps up his running, which is part of Copeland's problem.
"I'll feel an injury coming on," he said, "but I'll keep practicing because I don't want people to think I'm trying to miss practice. Like with my hamstring. I may feel it twinge, but I'll keep going until it pops. My body has always seemed to have something nagging, nagging and nagging me. Hopefully this year, I get back with no problems."
Copeland has always been the first to admit he's amazed at himself for not working out seriously during the first four offseasons of his career. Suddenly, he can feel the difference. He just plain feels better.
"I can definitely feel it. My body feels so much better," Copeland said. "With the way I'm working out now, definitely, I think I've got five good (seasons) left."