Posted: 10:15 p.m.
Leon Criner, then-defensive coordinator at the California juco College of the Canyons, saw the long, lean kid on tape playing quarterback, tight end, and everything else and joked that maybe he wouldn't show the tape to the offensive guys because he wanted this 220-pound schoolboy "Throwing Samoan" all to himself.
Then a couple of weeks ago Criner saw the 290-pound Jon Fanene playing a very inspired game on his TV for the Bengals and he thought about the decade in between.
"It wasn't that he was doing a lot of talking, but he seemed to be one of the leaders; he looked to be rallying them after every play," Criner said Tuesday from Los Angeles, where he now coaches at another junior college, Los Angeles Valley College.
"I was thinking, 'Boy has this guy come a long way.' And it made me feel good because Jonathan really deserves it."
Fanene was still rallying his teammates the day after the bitter 20-17 loss to the Raiders. Fanene, tackle Domata Peko, a fellow College of the Canyons alum, and the rest of the defensive line huddled on the plane ride home to talk about getting it right.
"We're doing well, but we're not there yet," Fanene said Monday. "We've got to go back to the basics and do the right thing every day. We can't give up the big runs. We didn't get back to the quarterback. That's not a good thing. We have to watch the film, clean it up, get our minds back for this game."
For the first time this season the Bengals didn't have a sack Sunday and the only hit they got on the quarterback was Fanene's rush from right end with six minutes left in the game that plowed into Oakland's Bruce Gradkowski as he threw the ball. Fanene's hit turned the ball into a butterfly and cornerback Johnathan Joseph netted it for an interception that should have clinched the game. But when the Bengals couldn't run out the clock, the Raiders used up the last 33 seconds for 10 points and the win.
Fanene has come off the edge after four seasons in obscurity to become the Bengals' leading pass rusher in the wake of last month's season-ending injury to Antwan Odom, the NFL sack leader at right end at the time of his torn Achilles. Since that Houston loss Oct. 18, Fanene has 3.5 of his five sacks after coming into this season with one career sack in five career stats.
"He's a guy that's always had the talent," Peko said this week. "But either he'd get injured or he was playing behind somebody else. He's strong, and he's quick, too."
Offensive lines have noticed. The guy who never seemed to play much has played well enough to draw attention. Fanene said he had a new experience Sunday with the Raiders double-teaming him a lot with the tackle and tight end or running back. One of the few times they left him one-on-one was the hit on Gradkowski.
"They were sliding the protection; I was mad," Fanene said. "I tried to work my way back there, but I didn't want to be selfish. I have to stay in my rush lanes. You have to contain (the quarterback). The guys in the middle have to push the pocket. He only got out (of pocket) once or twice.
"I'm not worried about myself, I'm worried about the team. I can't be selfish out there about myself or my stats. I'm that type of person. I just want to win."
That's just the type of person that Criner recruited from American Samoa to play outside linebacker and rush end at 6-4 and 220 pounds. When a defensive tackle went down, Criner asked Fanene if he wanted to try it. By the time the University of Utah called, that was his position.
"He's such a great kid. He just said, 'Sure, no problem' when I asked him to play tackle," Criner said. "Most Samoans when they come over to the States have a fairly difficult adjustment period because of the big change in culture. But Jonathan probably went through about it as easy as anyone because he's very intelligent and he's very open."
Fanene says there was not only a culture shock, but also an NFL shock when he arrived in 2005 as a seventh-round draft pick. There wasn't the exhaustive attention paid to the individual. If you wanted extra work, you had to watch film on your own and treat it like a job.
Plus, he found himself buried on the depth chart behind higher picks like Justin Smith and Robert Geathers, and the No. 1 pick his year, David Pollack, was getting looks as a nickel rush end. But veteran defensive tackle Bryan Robinson, just arrived in free agency, turned out to be a wise mentor. Even though Robinson is in his second season in Arizona, they still text and call.
"B-Rob took me under his wing and taught me about (life in the NFL)," Fanene said. "I got a text from him on the plane. He was upset. He was frustrated. Why the Raiders? I told him I have nothing to say. Things happen for a reason. Hopefully this message for the guys (is) just because we beat teams we think are good, doesn't mean we're great. There are a lot of teams out there that can beat us if we don't do our job."
Fanene just got a new job two months ago. He and his wife had a boy, Truman, and he says, "It changed my whole life. All I do now is go home every day and spend my time with them. We came up with his name ourselves. We want him to be a real man growing up."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» The one thing the Bengals have been able to do since the Browns came back into the NFL is run the ball on them. Five of the club's top 13 rushing performances of all-time have come against Cleveland since 1999 by three different backs. In the 13 games since Marvin Lewis became the head coach in 2003, the Bengals have rushed for at least 150 yards six times.
» That said, quarterback Carson Palmer probably wouldn't mind snapping one streak that is the longest of his career. He has gone 11 straight quarters without a touchdown pass for the second time, matching the skein of the first 11 quarters of 2008.