Remember when the Bengals used to be 53 guys, 53 cabs?
Or maybe 18 guys, 18 cabs since this is the deepest the secondary has been in the free agency era.
Maybe the locker room wasn't that bad when safety Chinedum Ndukwe arrived three years ago. But after watching more than 20 of his teammates show up last Saturday for his community event his observation over the last season or so has been reaffirmed.
"The culture of this team is a lot different than it was when I first got here way back when," Ndukwe says. "When you've got guys that actually come out and support their teammates that shows you something. And it was guys from all across the board. Offensive linemen. Tight ends. Everybody."
They needed all they could get because about 250 children from non-profit organizations in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati descended on the Mercy HealthPlex in Western Hills to hear and watch Ndukwe expound on his three elements for a fruitful life: Education, physical activity, and practical nutrition habits. So impressed by the turnout, secondary coach Kevin Coyle was moved to send out a rare email.
"There were offensive players, defensive players. Young guys. Veteran guys. It was a great cross-section of the entre team," Coyle says. "Guys interacted tremendously with the kids. The impact they were making on those kids that day and hopefully beyond that day made you proud to be part of the Bengals organization."
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth was repaying a favor since Ndukwe is one of the nearly 20 guys that made the trip to West Monroe, La., to aid Whitworth's Big Whit Foundation a few weeks ago. Center Dan Santucci was helping out an old Notre Dame teammate. Broncos quarterback Brady Quinn came down from a Mile High to support his boyhood friend from Columbus, Ohio.
But it was Ndukwe's guys in the secondary that really brought the chemistry to a blue flame. All the rookies showed. So did a guy like cornerback Adam Jones who has been here just two weeks. And an old hand, like cornerback Leon Hall that arrived with Ndukwe via the 2007 draft. Coyle and safeties coach Louie Cioffi worked it. So did special teams ace Kyries Hebert.
"I can speak for myself. I don't think there's a bad relationship between anybody," Hall says of the locker room. "I would have gone to Whit's if I (didn't have a commitment). I never want to miss a chance to play golf. Chinedum's was local, but it was still a Saturday and in another part of town. It's good to build off the camaraderie we already have."
Ever since Ndukwe came to the Bengals, he's tried to at least give as much as he's gotten. Whether it's in his hometown, ancestral Nigeria, or the Western Hills Mercyplex, his foundation is busy. The secondary also seems to be deep in giving as well as taking because a safety the Bengals just signed is also known for helping his African homeland. Gibril Wilson has built schools in his native Sierra Leone and even though he may end up competing with Wilson for playing time, Ndukwe says, "You respect guys like that."
What you have to respect about Ndukwe is that he made sure the kids saw on Saturday different types of people that have succeeded without playing sports professionally. Also on hand were Cincinnati police chief Tom Streicher, an assistant U.S. attorney based in Cincinnati, Kenneth L. Parker, and St. Xavier High School football head coach Steve Specht.
"I think it's important that they see more than my teammates," Ndukwe says. "To me the best part of a day like that is it gives kids who aren't around healthy food a chance to see it and learn about it. And for kids who aren't used to goal-setting or seeing a college graduate, it's great for them to see it and hear it. I like doing it because Cincinnati has been so good to me."
But Ndukwe is a seventh-rounder, a graduate of The Fighting Irish, a product of two immigrant parents who have built a marvelously successful life in the heartland.
So he's smart. He knows the score.
"If I don't go out and produce on the field on Sundays," he says, "what I do out in the community goes all for naught."
Heading into his fourth season, Ndukwe has almost been viewed as an afterthought during an offseason awash in the effort to add safety depth. It started right after the season when Jets tight end Dustin Keller killed the Bengals in the last two games against a safety spot without starters Roy Williams and Chris Crocker, and backup Tom Nelson limping with injuries.
There was constant safety draft chatter for three months and it dragged right through the draft when the Bengals couldn't pull off a trade to take USC safety Taylor Mays early in the second round.
Then it moved to angst when they didn't draft a safety at all and then immediately shifted to speculation when they started working out veterans, culminating in a deal three weeks ago with Wilson. He joined Williams and Crocker with at least 76 NFL starts at safety on the roster. But Ndukwe started nearly half of his 25 games last year in place of Williams and responded with the third-most tackles for a defense that finished fourth in the league.
"I understand the need to bring people in and have competition," Ndukwe says. "I'm confident in my ability to make plays."
And Coyle says that Ndukwe has had his finest stint with the Bengals this spring when it comes to focus and discipline.
It would seem those are your four safeties: Williams and Crocker backed up by Ndukwe and Wilson. Four seasoned and productive players. It reflects what Coyle sees all across his depth chart as he heads into his 10th season in charge of the DBs.
"Without a doubt it's the most talent we've had at both safety and cornerback spots," he says.
But 18 players in the secondary? The Bengals will probably keep 10 and they figure to cut at least two or three before they go to training camp. Hall says he got only two reps one day last week in team drills.
"That will change as we get closer to playing the guys that have to play," Coyle says. "But right now we've got time to look at guys in different scenarios. It's a good position to be in. I'm not sure I ever had 18 DBs even in college."
He thinks Ndukwe is headed the right way to break out away from the pack even more.
"He's played a lot of productive football here and he knows what he has to get better at," Coyle says. "Just discipline. A lot of times it's just not the physical things, it's the mental end of things in terms of being disciplined. Keeping his eyes where they need to be. Reading the keys properly and acting accordingly. I think this spring he's showing real focus, determination and discipline in those areas. The best he's ever been. His technique. He's communicating. He's really trying to do things the way he's being coached to do them. He's improved throughout the spring."
You could say about 250 kids had some improvement, too, thanks to Ndukwe. And that burgeoning Bengals secondary. Hall says they had 18 DBs at Michigan.
"But we had 130 guys on the team," he says. "There's a lot of good players. A lot of depth."
Even on a Saturday off the field.