E.T. defends Hall in history

Posted: 4:55 p.m.

Eric Thomas, the one guy watching the game Sunday that knew exactly what Leon Hall was thinking as Brandon Stokley raced into highlight history, has some advice for his Bengals cornerback descendant.

"First of all," Thomas said Monday, "Leon did nothing wrong but if he's not already thinking about Greg Jennings and the Packers, he should be. Stop talking about this game."

If there is any ending comparable in Bengaldom, it is the Pink Panther job of Sept. 20, 1987 at Riverfront Stadium against the 49ers.

Or, Sept. 20, 1992 in Green Bay. It must be something about this week in Cincinnati. Maybe some left over starry belch from Riverfest as the sun and moon collide with beer and nachos.

Anyway, Thomas was on the field for that one, too, when some kid named Brett Favre threw a 35-yard laser with 13 seconds left to beat the Bengals, 24-23.

More Riverfest belch? How about the Bengals trying to recover from the Spike Strike in Green Bay 17 years to the day they gave birth to the Favre legend?

But even last Sunday's Spike Strike is hard pressed to surpass the '87 fiasco. The Bengals were protecting a 26-20 lead when they got the ball on their own 45 with 54 seconds left.  But three Boomer Esiason quarterback kneeldowns later and the clock was still ticking. Throw in a delay of game and with six seconds left from the Bengals 30 head coach Sam Wyche ran a sweep to James Brooks instead of punting.

But the play didn't last long enough. Brooks got stopped with two seconds left at the Bengals 25. For the Hall of Fame combination of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, they were used to eternity. It was more than enough time to find the rookie Thomas. Jump ball to Rice. Ballgame. 27-26.

You think it got quiet Sunday?

A different play, of course, than the Spike Strike in which the Bengals had the Broncos pinned on their 13 with 28 seconds and leading, 7-6. While the '87 Bengals needed a series of weirdness to get beat, the '09 Bengals got it in one twisted bolt when Hall's Herculean tip ended up in Stokley's hands for an 87-yard touchdown with 11 seconds left.

But…

"Absolutely it's the first thing I thought of when I saw it," Thomas said. "I was with some friends and they were talking about how it was over and how they had won and I told them, 'It's never over until the clock is  at zero.' "

Thomas, who turned 45 on Friday, looks younger than he did when he jumped too late with Rice. He's a local physical fitness guru who runs the Eric Thomas Fitness Center on Duck Creek Road and can be heard during the season on radio and TV offering his take on the Bengals.

"I don't know what coverage they were in, but I thought the safeties were awfully shallow," Thomas said. "At that point, you've got to be worried about getting beat deep. There was some luck, but also some bad play."

Thomas had a little bit of both happen to him against Rice. First of all, the Bengals defense never thought they were going back on the field and second of all, Montana had them completely screwed up once they got out there.

"The whole thing all week was to find No. 80," Thomas said of Rice. "We thought he'd be on the trips side because he was never in the slot. But he was in the slot and instead of a safety like Barney Bussey or Robert Jackson in front of him, we had a linebacker, Leo Barker, in front of him. So he got off the line unmolested and by the time we found him, it was too late."

Plus, there were supposed to be four men strewn across the end zone. But there were only three. Rice found the rookie, the second-rounder from Tulane who had yet to win a starting job.

"I could have played it better from a technique standpoint," Thomas said. "I was nervous. I didn't jump when I should have. It was a jump ball. That's all it was. We knew Montana couldn't throw it 50 yards, but he could throw it 40 and he did. There were some technique things I could have done."

The media horde was waiting in front of Thomas' locker, but after he answered a couple of questions defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau grabbed his arm and said, 'I need to talk to you,' and led him away.

Out of media earshot, he said, " 'You don't need that,' " Thomas recalled.

Hall not only answered questions on Sunday, but also on Monday. That's the difference between a rookie and a three-year vet. And besides, the next day in '87 they were asking about the strike instead.

"We didn't get back on the field for five weeks after that game and I think that helped me," Thomas said. "I came back ready to play. I think it helped me. I didn't get nervous much after that and I played well enough that Solly (rookie safety Solomon Wilcots) and I started late in the season in Houston.

"But I think it will be good for those guys to get back out there. You could look at it both ways."

It helped make Thomas strong enough to become of the anchors of "The SWAT Team" secondary the next season as he became the only cornerback drafted by the Bengals to make a Pro Bowl in 1988.

By the time '92 rolled around, Thomas' career had taken a tragic turn. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee playing in a spring pickup basketball game before the 1990 season and made a quick enough recovery even by today's standards to play in the final four games.

Against The Pack he was teamed with cornerback Rod Jones on the opposite side and second-year safety Fernandus Vinson and rookie safety Darryl Williams with rookie head coach Dave Shula about to go to 3-0.

On one of the previous snaps, Thomas had Pro Bowl receiver Sterling Sharpe covered on a corner route and Favre overthrew him on the sideline. But Thomas thought they were still in the wrong coverage.

"We just got outfoxed on that one; they outcoached us on that," he said. "There is no way we should have been playing a Cover 2. We should have been in quarters or something like that because they could only beat us with a touchdown."

On the sidelines the Packers told Sharpe's backup, Kitrick Taylor, to go long. He ran the same corner route, but to the opposite side against Jones. Favre let loose with a strike, the second of the 465 touchdowns he has thrown in his career and the only one that Taylor caught in 47 career games.

The 33-year-old Shula would never get to 3-0. The Bengals lost 11 of their last 14 to finish 5-11. Thomas says this Bengals team will respond better than that one.

"We had a young coach and we had a young team; a lot younger than this one," Thomas said. "I came into the locker room and there were a lot of mad guys and, no, I don't think we ever did recover that year.

"But this is a veteran team. They've got a bunch of guys that have been around. The advice is the same. Keep rowing. Keep the oars in the water. Because Green Bay doesn't give a rip what happened."

Which is exactly what Hall said Monday.

"It's difficult. I think some take it harder than others," he said. "But we all realize that come Wednesday we start practicing ... and just prepare for the next game. Green Bay doesn't care what happened, if we won or lost.

"I have faith in our team. I know the guys pretty well now. I think we'll bounce back pretty well."

Hall figured he wouldn't watch the play, but Sunday night with guests in town it popped up "five to 10 times" on the highlights and he saw it again in the film room Monday morning.

Hall shrugged when he was complimented on his leap.

"I didn't get up high enough to get (a hand) over the ball and get it down," he said, alluding to what position coach Kevin Coyle tells his secondary. "(He was) dead on. If you have 60 snaps and play 58 great and you play those two poorly, or even one, you can lose the game."

Hall didn't play it poorly, but that's what Thomas was trying to tell his friends with 28 seconds left and 22 years later.

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