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Eifert Savors Health, Eyes Encore

Tyler Eifert exulted in this year's home opener with a TD.
Tyler Eifert exulted in this year's home opener with a TD.

Here it is in the last week of the season and Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert is still rapping his knuckles on his locker for good luck.

And you can't blame the man. There are two practices left. When he plays in Sunday's season finale (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) against the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium, it marks the first time in his seven NFL seasons that he's played all 16 games and just the second time he's made it to the finale.

"It's been awesome. I can't remember the last time I was in here with the guys for Christmas," said Eifert, after a brief Christmas Eve workout before the holiday off day on Wednesday. "Normally I'm rehabbing something. So it's been fun. The NFL season is a grind. It will wear you down, for sure. But we're all in it together, which makes it fun."

Eifert's injury history is more well-known than his stat line. A gruesome dislocated ankle wiped out the final 12 games of last season. The year before that his back went out after the second game and he was done. In 2016, he lost the first six games of the year when the ankle injury he suffered in the Pro Bowl and his back conspired to set him back. In 2014, the season between his rookie year and Pro Bowl, he lasted just nine snaps in the opener before his forearm imploded.

And despite facing free agency for the third straight year and the one-win Bengals looking at ripping things up with the overall No. 1 pick and a second-year head coach, Eifert would like to return to the team that drafted him in the first round in 2013. He admitted retirement floated across his mind last season in the weeks following the ankle injury. But looking at his 30th birthday around next year's opener, he's ready to play again.

"I've been a free agent before. I've had opportunities to go other places and ended up back here," Eifert said. "I enjoy the locker room. I enjoy our coaches. It's not the season we wanted, obviously. It's a good place to work. I've always thought that."

On Sunday, Eifert reminded everyone just how much he can be a factor when he made a leaping catch of Andy Dalton's 25-yard touchdown pass on the last play of regulation in Miami to set up Dalton's tying two-point scramble before the 38-35 loss in overtime. With wide receiver Tyler Boyd cramping up on the bench after making it all possible with a 29-yard grab, Dalton made it clear after the game that he had the other Tyler in mind all the way.

 "That's what he told me after the play," Eifert said. "It wasn't like a Hail Mary, where everyone was going to bunch up and get a jump ball. It was just five verticals down the field and find a hole. You never get full speed reps at that stuff, either. It's always kind of a walk-through situation.

"Normally, you just try and get in the end zone and find the ball. Because you don't know if he's got time and he's just got to throw it up. So you're trying to get there and find the ball. Good thing the line gave him time. It would have been really awesome if we could have finished it off in the end."

It was Eifert's third touchdown of the season and just his eighth since 2015, when no one could cover him during the season he caught 13 touchdowns to lead all NFL tight ends.

Even though he's played in two more games than he did that golden year, this year he has ten fewer TDs, 13 fewer targets (74-61) 11 fewer catches (52-41) and 213 fewer yards on nearly 300 fewer snaps. And that's with two starting wide receivers, A.J. Green and John Ross, missing a combined 23 games. In '15 Green and fellow wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu each played all 16 games and Eifert still played 71 percent of the snaps with 750 in 13 games, more plays than the No. 3 receiver Sanu ran. This year three receivers, Tyler Boyd, Alex Erickson and Auden Tate, took at least more than 150 snaps than Eifert this season.

 Of course, maybe not having three healthy starting receivers is a reason Eifert hasn't been so available. And with all his injuries they've been trying to protect him these past few years and playing 45 percent of the snaps this trip seems to have kept him intact. Plus, head coach Zac Taylor rarely uses multiple tight end packages in a scheme designed around three wide receivers.

But despite all that, Eifert thinks he can excel in this offense and that it's a fit.

"It's been a tough year," he said. "I don't think everyone is seeing the whole picture of what it could be."

But, look, Eifert is just like everyone else around here. No one knows what the 2020 team photo is going to look like. Even the best player on the team, Green, is wondering where he'll be a year from this week. Yes, Eifert would like to come back, but …

"It just depends on what's out there and what the deals look like," said Eifert, ending back-to-back one-year contracts. "There are so many different factors you have to weigh. I'm sure my agent and I will have a plan on what would be best … It all just depends. I don't even know what the picture looks like right now."

Eifert is one of these guys everyone in the locker room likes. Star-crossed but not bitter. Asked about his future on Christmas Eve, 2019, he grew a bit wistful.

"I think one day I'll live on some land with my wife and probably have four or five kids. Hunt, fish, drink some beer and hang out," he said.

Then he realized the question was about the near future. Like next year. "Oh, you're asking about my future. In the NFL?" How can you not like an unassuming guy like that? Remember how running back Giovani Bernard had to fight back tears in Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz locker room last year after watching Eifert get carted off in an air cast with another unimaginable season-ending injury that shattered all the hours of rehab?

He'd be an easy fit anywhere and he likes playing for Taylor. And that's even before the playbook.

"I think before all that even happens, it's about the culture in the locker room and the standard that Coach sets," Eifert said. "No one is getting away with being late or those type of things. I think you have to start at the bottom, when you're a new coach, with the foundation. People might say I'm stupid (because) we've only won one game … But I really believe we're building the right mindset and culture in here. "

The other thing he's found this year is the formula that kept him healthy. For the last several weeks Eifert has worked just one or two full practices a weeks. If he doesn't sit out one day, he at least goes one day limited. His injuries have been pure bad luck, but head strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese and head trainer Paul Sparling found a way to keep him off the inactive list and IR.

"I thought from a health standpoint that we had a pretty good plan going into the year and we stuck to it," Eifert said. "Sometimes in years past, it had kind of been the plan. But we get to a Wednesday practice and they're like, 'Hey, you're heavy in the game plan, we need to practice.' We just stayed to that game plan and getting extra work in with Joey in the weight room. I think that really helped me throughout the year."

But next year? There is no frame around the picture yet. He caught fellow tight end C.J. Uzomah's eye near the locker he had just tapped for good luck.

"Keeping the boys together? That's always fun," Eifert said.

So is playing all 16.