The Broncos are here for Sunday's 7 p.m. Paul Brown Stadium preseason opener (live on NFL Network, 11:30 p.m. on Cincinnati's Channel 12) and so naturally the talk is of the infamous "Spike Strike" last Opening Day.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Bengals cornerback Leon Hall said as a smile seeped out.
If you want to know why Hall is so rock-ribbed consistent, that's why. If you want to know why secondary coach Kevin Coyle uses his textbook technique to teach his other DBs, that's why. If you want to know why he and his corner mate Johnathan Joseph played like Pro Bowlers last year, that's why.
Simmering confidence with a memory shorter than February.
Sept. 13, 2009. A day that will live in infamy in Bengaldom.
Talk of the Denver play began to surface last week in practice, naturally, since the Bengals were beginning to prepare for Brandon Stokley and friends. Hall chirped up, "Why is everyone looking at me?"
If you want to know why his full name should be Leon Solid Hall, that's why.
"He's got a quiet confidence," said Coyle of a man who usually wears the same expressionless mask. "Leon Hall is a very confident guy. He's a very confident, self-assured guy that knows he's a top level player but he doesn't take anything for granted."
Chris Crocker, who along with safety Roy Williams blew up Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall on "Strike Spike," believes it actually spurred the Bengals playoff run.
We do know for sure that it was history as the longest winning play from scrimmage in the final minute ever and next to the two Super Bowl losses maybe the most devastating loss in franchise history given it came in an opener.
But we also know that before Vikki Zimmer and Chris Henry died and the tsunami struck Samoa during that fateful season, "Spike Strike" showed just how resilient this team would be. And Hall would be maybe the most resilient of all from that devastation.
For anyone who has obliterated the memory via over-the-counter drugs or otherwise when it comes to what has to be the NFL Films top play of the decade, these are the facts:
Bengaldom is dancing in the aisles in a sun-splashed opener. Carson Palmer has just engineered a 91-yard drive for the Bengals' first score of the season, a one-yard run by Cedric Benson to give the Bengals a 7-6 lead over Denver with a mere 38 seconds left.
On second and desperate, quarterback Kyle Orton fired a pass to Marshall on the left sideline. Hall, as he was all day, was there. He tipped it in the air at about the Bengals 35 and it somehow found Stokley at about the 43 running away from the secondary. He was far enough ahead that he ran up and down the goal line for six seconds before scoring with just an unbelievable, sickening 11 seconds left.
"It was a crazy play to be a part of," Hall said. "I've never seen that before. I wasn't really trying to tip it down or up. I just wanted to get a hand on it. You can always be critical of a lot of stuff that happens. We were able to bounce back. Outside of that play, we had a great game. I took that approach: That we played well for the whole game, but that last play hurt pretty bad."
This from Bengals.com last Sept. 13:
"Hall, along with the rest of the Bengals defense, had been brilliant all day. Before that play, the defense had allowed just 215 yards and nine first downs, and Hall had two tackles and three passes defensed while helping hold wide receiver Brandon Marshall to four catches for 27 yards."
It proved to be a harbinger and not the Hindenburg. The next week the Bengals went to Green Bay to play quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his dangerous offense and Hall and Joseph allowed just one catch of more than 20 yards to a wide receiver in helping the Bengals rack up six sacks in one of the biggest wins in the Marvin Lewis era.
The Bengals won four straight from the rubble, three in the AFC North that were decided nearly as late as "Spike Strike," (one actually later at the end of OT) and they were off. Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes had one catch for 18 yards and the Ravens' Derrick Mason and the Browns' Braylon Edwards had none over the next month against Cincinnati.
They rarely got beat deep. After "Spike Strike," the Bengals gave up just five touchdown passes of longer than 20 yards to wide receivers.
"Leon has an inner drive just to win," Crocker said. "He's got tremendous motivation. He wants to do it right. He's tremendously talented. And the thing is, he wants to maximize that tremendous ability. He's already one of the best younger cornerbacks I've seen."
So is Joseph and isn't that how it's been? You can't say Hall without Joseph. Or Joseph without Hall. They are like Fifth and Vine or Proctor and Gamble. Joseph, 26, came first as a first-rounder in 2006. Hall, who turns 26 late in the season, came the next year in the first round.
"They say your left corner is supposed to be your best corner because quarterbacks are usually right-handed," Crocker said of the spot manned by Joseph. "But both of our guys are great."
"I know both guys don't say much to the media and they are lunch-pail guys. They just show up and work," Crocker said. "But I'm around them all the time and they're always talking. Leon is the jokester. Johnathan is slicker. He'll give you a (wise)crack on the side."
Hall hasn't had the injury problems Joseph had in 2007 and 2008. When he started this training camp on the sidelines with a tweak in his back, it marked the first NFL practices he had missed, never mind a game.
The impression when they came out is that Joseph was the wildly gifted one with sub-ridiculous closing speed while Hall was the master of technique from the plodding Big Ten.
Maybe that's the way it was, but not now.
"I think Leon is underestimated as an athlete," Coyle said and Crocker agrees.
"I made him my first pick in the draft when we played softball," said Crocker of the minicamp get together back In June. "I was the captain of that team and we rode Leon to the finals. He was everywhere. He was our shortstop, outfield. Everything."
And Hall isn't the only guy Coyle puts on the board. Joseph, of course, is also shown to new guys like Adam Jones when Coyle wants to show how he wants it done.
"Johnathan is a tremendous athlete that has become a better technician. Leon's example has helped him become a better player," Coyle said. "He has become a better fundamental player over the last year or two. He has more awareness of the field and his role in the defense. That's partly attributed to his relationship with Leon. They're so close."
If Hall isn't with Joseph, he's with his former Michigan teammate Morgan Trent. Or Crocker. Or any of the DBs, really. They get on him because he's going bald ("So am I, but I'm older," Crocker said) and he and Crocker have played enough video games that Crocker is used to hearing the trash-talking version of Hall.
Hall occasionally has the DBs over to his Anderson Township home for barbecues with his wife Jessica and look-alike toddler Leon in a neighborhood he loves because everyone likes to joke around and not take him too seriously.
If it all sounds very Midwestern, Hall has to laugh because he considers himself very Californian. San Diego to be exact.
"That's unfortunate, but I've been out here since '03," Hall said. "Can't get away from it even if I wanted to."
But he does fit Cincinnati's unpretentious style and he knows it and likes it. Coyle wasn't all that surprised last week at training camp that he first heard about an event the Halls were putting on for an orphanage that day at Georgetown College about five minutes before it happened.
No press releases. No cameras. No announcements. Head coach Marvin Lewis simply told his teammates in the huddle at the end of practice. And it shows what Hall's teammates think of him because most of them stopped by the tent to say hello or sign autographs.
"That's Leon," Coyle said. "Jessica, too. She's very active. He does things quietly. Not a lot of fanfare. But he wants to give back to the community. It was a big day for those kids. Just the way he carries himself publicly is very impressive. One of the best players I've ever been around as a player and a person."
Hall doesn't like anyone to write about him. Crocker says it gets under Hall's skin when he gets beat in practice because he knows that always gets written, but when Hall was approached about a story last year to coincide with his return to San Diego, he politely asked it not be done.
"Jinx," he said.
Of course, he had his worst game of the season against the Chargers, giving up two of those long touchdowns to wide receiver Vincent Jackson, as well as a killing 20-yarder that set up the winning field goal at the end of the game.
"I don't think it was the pressure of going home. I didn't feel that during the game," he said. "I always seem to have one of those every year. My second year it was Baltimore (at home). My rookie year it was almost every game. I'm always looking to play the perfect game. Haven't done it yet. You can't have a bad game. It's one too many."
That's one of the many things Coyle loves about the guy.
"He's able to put it in his memory bank and just doesn't make the same mistake twice," Coyle said. "He looks at it, studies it, and he remembers it."
You can count that off the field, too. His arrest for DUI in the spring of 2009 was one of the biggest shocks to the team because if you went down the roster, Leon Solid Hall would have been one of the five guys you would have said, "No way."
"Stupid," he said. "It was so uncharacteristic of me. Of course it had an impact. I think it made me a better man. I think it brought me down to earth."
His story is remarkable. He was raised by his mother and when she died in her sleep from heart failure at age 38, Hall was just 12. His sisters and an uncle raised him and, as Jessica said the weekend he was drafted, "He's the most respected and respectful and loving man I've ever met in my life. I just think it's because he became the man of the house and he felt he had to spring into action at such a young age."
Ask him now why he is Leon Solid Hall, and that is still the answer.
"I think it's because of the way I grew up," he said. "When my mother passed, we all had to come together as a family and it kept us grounded."
Grounded enough to survive "Spike Strike" and put together one of the best years ever by a Bengals corner. As did Joseph.
"I thought he played Pro Bowl-caliber. I didn't see anybody play more consistently than he did at a high level," Coyle said. "I thought both played at a Pro Bowl level. These two guys played the most consistent at a high level of any corners we've had here and we've had Pro Bowl corners. Both of them are becoming the complete package. They're not just run defenders and they don't just make interceptions, or just play physical or just run. They can do it all."
About that play?
It was intimated that day against the Broncos that maybe the safeties didn't play deep enough, but Crocker says it was simply a fluke: "We did what we were supposed to. We took out the receiver and a play was made on the ball."
Frankly, Hall hasn't thought about it very much. And he has seen it less. He thinks he may have watched it the day after, but he really can't remember.
"I didn't see it too many times. I've got a picture of it in my mind," he said. "I don't need to keep drilling it."
That's why he is Leon Solid Hall.