Mentored by a former Bengals head coach that he can imitate to the syllable and recommended by a former Bengals draft pick that first urged him to go into coaching because of his gift for teaching, Nick Eason looks to be an ideal master overseeing the final check-mate on the Bengals record book by tackle Geno Atkins and end Carlos Dunlap.
"When he talks to us, he's talking about the best way to do it because he's done it," Dunlap is saying this week about Eason, his new defensive line coach. "On the chalkboard everything looks good and should work within the rules, but pieces move in a real game and he understands that."
Eason, who was on the front row of those rough-and-tumble Bengals-Steelers games of the late oughts (including a start in the '09 War of 18-12 that won the AFC North for Cincinnati), has inherited a line led by Dunlap and Atkins, the only guys in Eason's room that have played more than the 117 games Eason registered during nine seasons. Dunlap is 11.5 sacks from the franchise sack record, and Atkins, a seven-time Pro Bowler headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is 13 sacks from getting it himself.
Eason had all of seven sacks as one of the dirty-work ends that could also slide into nose tackle in those relentless 3-4 defenses that former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau used to perfection in Pittsburgh and was brought to Arizona by his disciple, former Bengals cornerback Ray Horton. But he's got one thing Dunlap and Atkins don't that commands attention.
The Ring. From 2008, when the Steelers beat the Cardinals in the last minute of the Super Bowl. And they both want one of their own. When Eason challenged them both early on, he says they've responded.
"Resume and reputation mean nothing to me," is how Eason says he framed his introduction to everyone in his room last month. "Those guys are great people and they're already great players. But there's always room for improvement. And they've been great. The one thing Geno and Carlos want to do is win."
Eason had no problem getting the attention of his two stars. A ring, two Super Bowls and the respect of nine seasons that began by grinding in NFL Europe will do that.
"He's talked to me and Geno about being the leaders of the defense and whether we're verbal or not, you're still the leader and guys look up to you and follow what you do," Dunlap says. "He's challenged me and Geno to be those guys. He understands. He knows where it need to come from and how to get it out of you because he has a different perspective. He's not like a rah-rah guy. He's kind of like 'The Inside Man.' He knows because he's been sitting beside a guy in that position."
“He’s talked to me and Geno about being the leaders of the defense and whether we’re verbal or not, you’re still the leader and guys look up to you and follow what you do ... He’s challenged me and Geno to be those guys. He understands. He knows where it need to come from and how to get it out of you because he has a different perspective. He’s not like a rah-rah guy. He’s kind of like ‘The Inside Man.’ He knows because he’s been sitting beside a guy in that position.” Carlos Dunlap on Nick Eason
Spike Lee directed "The Inside Man," back when Eason was breaking into the league. But his story is more like an early Stallone script out of the "Rocky," genre. After getting his sociology degree from Clemson two years before the Broncos took him in the fourth round of the 2003 draft, he got hurt, missed his rookie year, went to Europe to get snaps and when he came back he bounced around some practice squads before finally playing in his first game for the Browns near the end of the 2004 season.
When it soured in Cleveland after the '06 season, LeBeau saw him as one of those quintessential role players, an extremely bright and tireless gamer that fit into Pittsburgh's blue-collar juggernaut, which finished first in the league in yards allowed in '07 and '08, fifth in '09 and second in '10 during a stretch Eason played 55 games as one of the rotating front men that didn't allow nary a drop-off when Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel needed breathers.
"He talks about it," says Bengals nose tackle Andrew Billings of Eason's ring. "He knows how to be a Super Bowl champion. You see it. You know it. And your hear it."
And Eason did under grueling personal circumstances. During his final two seasons with the Cardinals when he followed Horton to the desert, he told Arizona Foothills magazine that he had lost 19 family members since college, among them his mother and brother. Guys like Horton and Steelers teammate DeShea Townsend point to the intangibles that Eason also give to his players if they watch how gets involved off the field
When Eason played he began a foundation that focused on helping cancer patients after his mother battled breast cancer. And just a few weeks ago he went back home to Toombs County, Georgia with an autographed Bengals football when he spoke at the "A Walk to Remember" Savannah 2019 Scholarship Banquet.
Eason presented $1,000 scholarships to nine students suffering the loss of a parent or guardian. He brought the ball for a young man he met back in March during the fund-raising event. Forrest, who lost his father earlier this year, also discovered with Eason's help the organization has started a college fund for him.
"I love Nick. I love his personality. I love his smile," says Horton, the Bengals' 1983 second-round pick and Super Bowl XXIII starter now in his 24th season of NFL coaching in the Washington secondary. "Nick was one of those players that just got it … He's got that gift to teach something so people understand it.
"There's a quote, 'School doesn't teach you what to think, but how to think,'" Horton says. "That's all we're trying to do is get these guys how to handle information we give them and cognitively react to what they see on him film … As a player when we put the game plan in, he would talk to his teammates. 'Here's what you have to do here,' 'Watch out for this.' And then as a coach you'd see him right in the middle of it getting dirty with them."
Horton saw enough of him as a player that he told Eason he should be a coach. He remembers when his own head coach in Washington, Norv Turner, told Horton the same thing a quarter of a century ago and he instinctively laughed. Me? Coach? But then Horton figured it out. Like Eason. And now Eason credits Horton to getting him started when he brought him back to Cleveland as a Bill Walsh Minority Internship coach.
"I'm just trying to share my experiences as a player on and off the field and passing on the knowledge through the good and the bad and what I've learned as a coach and the things to do and not to do," Eason says.
Dunlap and Atkins have had solid position coaches during their ten seasons in Bengaldom. Their careers began under Jay Hayes, one of the most productive coaches in Bengals history during 13 seasons. He was succeeded by Jacob Burney, a guy Eason respects enormously and the guy that drafted him way back in '03. Now here comes Eason, a guy that started the Christmas Eve 2011 game at Paul Brown Stadium for the Cardinals in which Dunlap had a sack, Atkins had four tackles and Eason had two. No one is saying better. It's just different to be coached by a guy that played in the same game.
"It's not that you don't have respect for a coach that didn't play," Dunlap says. "But in our situation our coach has played, so naturally when he's talking to us, he's talking to us from experience, not coaching experience. It's a little bit different."
Or, as Bengals defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow says, the nine years means something in a room where five or six years is a rarity.
"He just got out in (2012). He knows how the game is played, but he's firm as a coach. He definitely connects the room," Glasgow says. "He's done what I want to do. Play ten years and win a Super Bowl. To be coached by a guy like that … The guys that have played as long as he has, Carlos and Geno, really respect him and the D-Line room does a whole."
Eason makes no bones about it. He'll turn to his playing days in a heartbeat to make a point and he already has in detailing how close the Steelers were as a team. When the D-line breaks up a group, they go on three, "We're family." So he told them what that meant.
"I spend time with my family," Eason says. "You have to spend time together off the field. That's what we did in Pittsburgh. We were an extremely tight-knit group on defense. Even with the offensive line. We supported each other."
Already the D-Line has been on three outings together in the last month, one planned by Atkins, one by Dunlap, and the other one was team-sponsored. They've been for wings, went to Top Golf and rode go karts. What impressed Dunlap is that Eason made all of them even though during one event he had meetings. But when he got a break Eason checked in and then came back to the stadium.
"Nick has a great personality. If you didn't know he was a coach, you'd think he was a salesman. Can sell ice to Eskimos," Horton says. "He gets their respect because he understands and he knows what he's talking about. Some guys bluff their way through and players see that ... He yells at guys when they do it wrong and he pats them on the back when they do it right. He does just what you would want a coach to do."
“Coach LeBeau, guys love him ... He’s all about keeping things simple. Simplicity is everything. Make sure you break down the information so guys can play faster. It’s about guys playing fast and communication and being on the same page. We’ve got the guys that can do it.” Nick Eason on the influence of former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau, his coordinator in Pittsburgh.
Townsend, the former Steelers cornerback and current Bears secondary coach, says Eason was the ultimate, selfless teammate. Whether it was 40 snaps or four, he was prepared and helping everybody else. Their coaching careers were influenced heavily by LeBeau and Townsend is still laughing about the day Eason came into a meeting and he could have sworn it was LeBeau's voice chiding them to settle down.
"Great imitation," Townsend says. "Nick's a jokester, but it's the way we were brought up. Once it's business and you're in between the lines, he's all business."
Eason is trying to reach the real thing so he can get Charles Richard LeBeau down here this spring. He'd love to have LeBeau, 81, address his guys, which probably would be LeBeau's first PBS appearance since he was let go as the head coach 17 years ago.
"Coach LeBeau, guys love him," Eason says. "He's all about keeping things simple. Simplicity is everything. Make sure you break down the information so guys can play faster. It's about guys playing fast and communication and being on the same page. We've got the guys that can do it."
Dunlap was asked about a headline for this story, the old sum-up line for his new coach. He offered, "It's Nick's Time."
Not bad. But Eason would be the first to tell you, it's everybody's time.
"At the end of the day, that's the environment in this room," Eason says. "Regardless of how long you've been in the league, what position you play, it's the same. You hold each other accountable."
That's an idea straight from the old AFC North. What was good in '08, is good in '19.