Full circle

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In his first NFL game last preseason, rookie DB Josh Shaw (26) prepped by watching tape that contained some Chris Crocker plays.

The Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching fellowship program has taken the NFL by storm, but it has always had a uniquely Bengals feel to it.

 Walsh began his NFL career in Cincinnati as Bengals founder Paul Brown's top offensive assistant coach, the wide receivers and quarterbacks coach for the man who broke the pro football color line in 1946. And current Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis became one of the first participants in the late '80s before using it every year on as many candidates as he can when he became a head coach in 2003.

"He opens the door," said Bengals defensive line coach Jacob Burney of Lewis. "Some programs are really tight. Even though those guys are there, they don't feel a part of it. Marvin allows these guys to feel a part of it. That's invaluable."

As of last year, Burney was one of 61 full-time NFL coaches that had been in the Walsh program. And in 1992 he served his internship under Jets head coach Bruce Coslet, one of Walsh's Bengals tight ends and a future Bengals head coach.

"He was one of those guys," Burney said. "He said, "Go coach."

But on Tuesday the Walsh program truly had a multi- generational feel to it when Chris Crocker took the field during the final week of voluntary practices with secondary coaches Kevin Coyle and Robert Livingston.

"We just wish,' Coyle deadpanned, "that he would stop using all his time to talk to the media."

Crocker's story is the story of the Bengals' revival in this decade of six post-season berths in the past seven years. Left for dead when Miami cut him in October of 2008, Crocker surfaced on the doorstep of Coyle and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and became their eyes and ears on a top ten defense when they took advantage of his experience and intelligence. The hallmark of this run has been filling the roster with football I.Q. and versatility and Crocker, as a slot corner and nickel safety and everything else in between, is the personification of both.

That's how he lasted 11 years in the league and why he played in 71 games and on four post-season teams in Cincinnati after no one wanted him.

"One of the things that made him such a great player for us was his understanding of the game," Coyle said. "Understanding how the scheme fit and how he fit within the scheme. He was one of those guys that saw the big picture."

Pro Bowl cornerback Adam Jones, who is regarded as the sage of the secondary with impeccable football acumen, went even further than that after playing four seasons with him.

"Crock is smarter than me on the field,' Jones said. "He's a big reason I've become so smart out there."

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For the second straight year in 2013, Crocker came off the couch in September to help the Bengals into the postseason.

Burney thinks Crocker is exactly what Lewis has in mind with the internship. Both player and intern can learn.

"Consider that. A guy that knows the system backwards and forwards. His input when it comes to young players. That's just another perspective that's a positive," Burney said. "This guy played (11) years from that standpoint.  You know he is going to be positive when it comes to what they have to do to be a pro. How to take notes. How to operate in meetings. In today's game, everybody is kind of even steven, right? So you need all those kinds of extra things that might give you that one play that's going to make a difference.

"This guy played (11) years in the NFL. This (rookie) is just getting here. Yeah, he's talented, but he doesn't know what it's all about. Crock can take a guy like that . . .  "Hey listen, here's what you need to do." That doesn't get into the player's way. That doesn't take anything away from them. That's good stuff."

Crocker is still thinking big. After coaching here this week, next week's mandatory minicamp, and the first few weeks of training camp, he's going back to officiating for a second year in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference.  

Cincinnati Bengals host OTAs at Paul Brown Stadium practice fields 6/7/2016

I'll say never say never,' Crocker said about coaching. "It's definitely something I think I have in my blood because, you know, you play the game for 20 some odd years when add up all the high school, college, professionally. I think it's something I possibly could do.

"But this is just an opportunity. Whether you look at it as an opportunity to sort of get your feet wet or to just walk through these doors. Not even college coaches get a chance to do this fellowship. Just having the opportunity to come out here and do it, I look at it as a blessing just to be able to be thought of as a guy that they see doing something like this. I'm just taking it one day at a time and just having fun with it."

Coaching or reffing? Crocker sounds like he's leaning to reffing as a side judge, field judge or back judge and why not? As he says, he's got "two ninjas" at home in girls 5 and 2 and officiating is a deal only for the weekends while coaching is 24-7.

"I'm watching the same thing I watched as a player. It's really fun to learn the game from the other side. I started refereeing before I even retired, so I sort of learned the knacks of it and what they were looking for and who was looking at me and how I could cheat a little bit more," Crocker said. "I think it helped extend my career because I knew what I could get away with. I like watching those back guys. I don't want to be on the line of scrimmage. Those guys have too much responsibility . .. A lot of (officials) spent 15-20 years before they made it to the NFL. That's a lot of time, a lot of games. So I have a deep respect for that."  

But before that, you can pick his brain on this secondary that's got something old and something new. Crocker, who last played for the Bengals in 2013, played with starting safeties George Iloka and Shawn Williams when they were rookies. He took Jones under his wing when Jones arrived in 2010 and he helped 2012 first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick as a rookie play the slot in practice.

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Crocker is looking for more picks from safety George Iloka.

Williams: "He's a headsy player and he's really come along. Been groomed. He didn't step in there Day 1. He was able to learn a lot, not only from me, but from Reggie (Nelson), from Leon (Hall). He's really prepped himself based on what he got to learn. I think it's been really good for him to have that progression. He's looked good so far. . . He's ready to play, but it's really unknown. This is going to tell you going into his first year as a starter, so I couldn't tell you what his goals are. I'd just like to see him be consistent."

Iloka: "George has been a good player for a couple of years now. He's going into his fifth season and now he has the big money he has to take another big step . .. Get his hands on a lot more balls. He needs some more interceptions. He's a headsy player obviously, and he's going to make plays, but I'd like to see him get a lot more interceptions, get a couple more this year. And I think that's his goal, too."

But, as Crocker says, "someone is going to get hurt . . . I  want to see how the rest of those guys emerge because the chances of all four of those guys playing 16 weeks, this is the NFL and guys are going to get dinged up."

So he's talking about the kids. The guys he never played with, such as 2014 first-rounder Darqueze Dennard, a slot corner, and two late-round picks from the last two years at safety, Derron Smith and Clayton Fejedelem.

And the guy they think has a shot to be a latter-day Crocker, Josh Shaw, the fourth-rounder from 2015 they hope can play some nickel safety for them as well as some slot corner. You know, a guy like Crocker, who on one snap could defend a tight end and then on the next move into the slot and cover a receiver.

"I haven't seen enough," Crocker said. "As we get into training camp those roles will start to really define themselves. I do think it's paramount that you have two or three guys back there who can play multiple positions because the more you can do, it helps the coaches. Going into game day, if you know you have a DB that can play two or three spots, you don't have to carry another DB."

Crocker says Shaw's ceiling is "very high," and Shaw said after practice Tuesday that he heard plenty last year about Crocker. He watched him on film and heard the talk.

"He was brought up a lot in our meeting rooms. Primarily because of his consistency. He made plays here. He's a guy you want to get advice from. Very versatile. He did a lot and it's kind of similar to the role I'm stepping in to right now. The more I can learn from him the better."

They have yet to talk about the swing role between safety and corner, but Shaw was all ears when Crocker addressed the secondary room before Tuesday's practice.

"He gave us some knowledge," Shaw said. "He told us that he was consistent, how the coaches knew they what they were going to get out of him. And he was telling us to take advantage of the opportunity. Once it's over, it's over."

But Crocker thinks the Bengals might need a veteran bridge while Shaw learns the craft in becoming, well, the next Crocker.

"As a young guy, you're so worried about just learning the system and learning what you have to do, whether you're a corner or whether you're a safety. You have to really get that down before you can think about playing another spot," Crocker said. "This system isn't easy. This isn't a system that you can just come in Day 1 and it's like Tampa 2 where you know what you're doing. We're doing multiple things, so you really have to learn your position and don't think about the other position . .. These days you're either a safety or a corner. You don't draft a guy as a nickel." 

And so he suggests his old running mate in the secondary, free-agent cornerback Leon Hall. Hall is 31 and coming off a tough season in which he was hindered by back issues, a problem he hopes has been solved by surgery.

Back in the day when the 5-11, 195-pound Hall was an elite corner, many often said with his brains and range he could end his career as a Pro Bowl safety. Two rebuilt Achilles' and a tender back may scale that back, but Crocker thinks he's got plenty left.

"I definitely think there's a spot for him. There's a place for him," said Crocker, sounding more coach than intern. "I don't see him being replaceable just yet. I'd like to see him come back."

The Andy & Jordan Dalton Foundation played host to nearly 300 guests at its fifth annual Celebrity Waiter Night at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza Hall of Mirrors 6/6/2016

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