Happy Michael J. Thomas Day.
A year ago Tuesday during the Bengals bye week, Thomas, the vet safety and special teams maven, signed to the roster from the practice squad and got ready for a stretch run that saw him become a calming influence on a young team about to shock the world on the way to the Super Bowl.
Now a special teams captain, there's no one better to ask about the difference between last year's 5-4 at the bye and this one's 5-4 when the season re-commences Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Pittsburgh.
"We believed, but you don't know. Now we have more confidence with these guys because you've done it before. Now we know it's up to us to put it together," said Thomas after Monday's hour-long walk-through on the Paycor Stadium field ended the five-day break.
"It feels like the cavalry is coming. Everyone held on and now guys are coming back and that makes everyone better."
Before he went out to practice, Thomas saw slot cornerback Mike Hilton (finger) and cornerback Tre Flowers (hamstring) suit up after missing the last game. He couldn't miss the return of D.J. Reader (knee), the massive Pro Bowl-caliber nose tackle who was playing just as big before he went down with a torn MCL in New York Sept. 25.
And then there was safety Brandon Wilson (ACL) practicing for the first time in a year. It was Wilson who went on injured reserve a year ago and opened the roster spot for Thomas.
Thomas says the return of the injured guys have given them "a pep in the step."
"A guy in No. 40 out there at practice with dreds coming out of the back of his helmet. Who is that kid?" Thomas said. "Last year it was, 'We think we can go on a run.' Now we know we have what it takes. Let's go out there and apply it.
"It's great to see those (returning) guys. They make us better and can help us win. They give us a pep in the step."
Hilton also senses a difference in the dueling byes.
"This year's 5-4, we're a lot more confident," Hilton said. "Some of those losses are by one play. Go back to Pittsburgh. There was a long-snap issue. Dallas we lost on a field goal. Baltimore we lost on a field goal. Last year we got blown out a couple of times. (Joe) Burrow had the three interceptions in the Chicago. The whole confidence and mindset of this team is lot different than last year."
Although head coach Zac Taylor is optimistic about Reader playing in Pittsburgh, Reader says he's not sure if he can go and will take it day-by-day.
But he has definite thoughts about the upcoming stretch.
"I feel like we're right in the hunt. Everything we want is right in front of us. We're going to go out and play ball," Reader said. "We're 5-4, over .500, and so everything we want is right in front of us. We have to play all those teams that are on the chart in the front of us, so I'm excited."
PUNT CALL: Let's see.
The last time the Bengals went on the road without either Kevin Huber as their punter or Clark Harris as their long snapper was four presidents ago.
Biden. Trump. Obama. W. Bush. Dec. 21, 2008, a 14-0 win in Cleveland where Brad St. Louis snapped it to punter Kyle Larson to hold for two Shayne Graham PATs.
Now the winds seem to be angling for Drue Chrisman to come off the practice squad and make his NFL punting debut in Pittsburgh Sunday as Huber cools his Bengals-record 216 Bengals games. Huber, the 14-year vet who holds every Bengals punting record and has worked in the last 138 straight games that includes a Super Bowl, was philosophical Monday about his next-to-last-in-the-NFL 37.4 net yards per punt.
Philosophical, but adamant that he's preparing like he's going to punt in his 217th game
"It's no secret to anybody. I haven't punted well in a game. I haven't been transferring over what I've been doing in practice and pregame to the game," Huber said. "So, when I talk to people, practice and pregame is like I'm a driving game scratch golfer. Then I get in the game and I'm trying to tee off No. 1 at Augusta as a 20 handicap. It's just a little disconnect right now between practice and the game and it's been tough. It hasn't been a great year so far. It's just something I've been trying to work with."
Huber and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons are pretty blunt guys. So you know Huber has heard what Simmons has told the media. He's going to make the best move for the team.
"I've been with him long enough that they're very direct and very honest. We both know very well that obviously I'm not punting to the level that I need to be right now to help this team win games and get to the level we were last year," Huber said. "Just very direct, very honest and everything's out there and we talk about everything."
Huber did what he did at last year's bye and took some injections and put the leg up. That's why he let kicker Evan McPherson hit some missiles in the last workout before the bye. But last year Chrisman wasn't an option because he was just coming back from injury.
"I know I can still punt," Huber said. "I've been punting really well in practice. I've been punting really well in pregame and as a positive, it's there. It's not like everything is gone. It's just in the game, which is obviously the most important. Practice, at the end of the day, doesn't really matter. It's what I do in games."
READER RETURN: When Reader missed most of the 2020 season, the Bengals finished 29th in rushing. When he played every game that mattered but one last year, they finished fifth. They were top ten when he got hurt this year but are 18th heading into Pittsburgh after the No. 2 rushing Ravens and No. 3 Browns hit them for big games on the ground while he's been out.
But he couldn't be back at a better time. With the Ravens and Browns looming again, the Steelers are coming off their best rushing day of the season with more than 200 yards. If he's not ready until next Sunday in Nashville, perfect. King Derrick Henry leads the Titans' No. 7 running attack and it's the scene of Reader's most dominating performance as a Bengal when they held The King to 62 yards on 20 carries in the AFC Divisional win.
"It's an itch," Reader said of the two-month weight. "I've been blessed to play a game that I really, really, truly love and compete at something I enjoy to the fullest, so it's an itch that you get not being able to be out there, that smell of the fall and football on Sundays, it doesn't just go away. It doesn't go away for a long time. As a competitor, you always want to get out there, but you know you have to do what's best for your body. You want to be able to be out there and help the team. You don't want to be out there hurting the team."
It looks like he's past that stage and is in the big lift stage.
"He's one of the best D-Tackles in the NFL. It's not just the pass rush, it's the run downs as well. He does such a great job of winning and freeing up those around him on the line of scrimmage," Taylor said Monday. "Freeing up the backers behind him. That's a big piece. If he's able to play Sunday. He's a captain so he brings all of those leadership things to the table as well. Tremendous energy. He's a great playmaker and we're lucky to have him on our team.
"We've played some teams that will run the ball so the timing is never perfect. But again getting him back here for this last half of the season is critical for us."
If it seems like he never left, he didn't. The minute Reader could get off crutches, he was at practice and on the sidelines, even going to the road games. Checking on his guys. When they voted him captain before the season, the 'C," on his jersey was more than alphabet soup.
"I got that patch this year, it was something I've been working towards. That captain's patch was huge for me," Reader said. "I knew it meant a lot more than just being around the guys. I didn't want to get in that lull that I kind of got into with the (2020) quad (injury) where you're out for the season so you leave. You're hanging out, but not really around. I knew I would have the chance to come back so I wanted be around the guys and make sure I was in there with them, making sure we were talking on the sidelines and just try to be a coach as best I can and be a good teammate."