Updated: 4 p.m. Add The Dean to the graduates of the Ed Block School of Hard Knocks.
Defensive lineman Robert Geathers, who has played more Bengals games than anyone on the roster, thought he had a shot to play No. 137 late in the season if he'd been eligible to return from injured reserve. But while his torn right triceps shelved him for the entire season, Geathers's teammates knew he would have come back if allowed and voted him the club's Ed Block Courage Award.
"I didn't know I could win it by not playing. If I'd been 'designated to return,' I think I could have been back for the last couple of games," Geathers said Monday, out since he collided with an opposing guard in the second game of the season. "I'll take it because it was voted by my teammates. To be picked by them, it means a lot.
"It means a lot when you look at the history of the guys that have won it on this team. Class-act guys who did it the right way, worked hard, bounced back from injuries. I'm proud to be a part of that. I know because I voted for them."
Geathers, a fourth-round pick in 2004 out of Georgia, easily fits into that ultimate pro category by doing it all for the Bengals in his 136 regular-season games, the third most by a defensive lineman in club history. Trailing only nose tackle Tim Krumrie (188) and end Eddie Edwards (170), Geathers is tied for 23rd on the Bengals all-time service list. He only needs five more games to pass Mr. Bengal himself, longtime radio analyst Dave Lapham.
From situational pass-rusher with double-digit sacks, to a three-down end, to an emergency linebacker, to his role now off the bench going up and down the line at every position, Geathers has often been on the Block ballot and could have won it any number of years. In what was believed to be a tight race between him and the player designated to return off injured reserve, slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, Geathers wasn't around to vote because he was rehabbing.
Hawkins (ankle) had the edge to be designated because he was able to return much sooner, at the season's halfway point. But Geathers, 30, is encouraged that he'll be able to step right out of the gate on day one in April when the Bengals start offseason workouts.
"I feel like I'll be able to rock and roll right away," Geathers said. "I don't know if they're going to limit me early because I haven't been doing football stuff, but I think I can get out there. I'll definitely be ready for training camp."
That is going to be a lift for a team that covets his leadership as much as his versatility. The season-ending injuries to two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and secondary service leader Leon Hall got a lot more play. But defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer also thought the loss of Geathers hurt the Bengals.
"A very strong nucleus, a guy in this locker room who is great," Zimmer said the day after the season.
The possibility of not having Zimmer this next season continues to be discussed among the defense. As Geathers hung up the phone with line mate Domata Peko on Monday, Zimmer appeared to be the leading choice in Minnesota as the Vikings head coach with weekend reports saying he's returning to the Twin Cities for a second interview. While the players wonder who'll take over, Geathers believes they'll be able to keep churning out top 10 level defenses if Zimmer leaves.
"We would definitely miss him. He's a motivator and guys love to play for him," Geathers said. "But no one in that room is looking to go backwards. He made us believe in ourselves. It's not like we haven't been good. We know how we got there: hard work, consistency. Doing the little things. We have the foundation."
Geathers and Peko talked about how well the defense played with so many key players injured and somehow finished third in the NFL rankings for Zimmer's fourth top seven finish in six seasons.
"It speaks volumes to not only Zim, but also to the leadership," Geathers said. "Domata and a lot of the other guys."
If Zimmer gets a job, the potential replacements start with Bengals linebackers coach Paul Guenther, if Guenther doesn't become Zimmer's defensive coordinator or hook on with Jay Gruden in Washington. With Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis saying last week the defensive system is going to stay the same whether Zimmer is here or not, that would seem to indicate Guenther would get a long look.
Also in the mix could be former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, a quality control and position coach under Lewis. Former Bengals cornerback and secondary coach Ray Horton, who coordinated the Browns defense last season after a stint coordinating the Cardinals followed a long run as the Steelers secondary coach, may be attractive because of his extensive AFC North experience.
But Geathers says no matter whom it is, the Bengals have enough veterans to survive.
"We've been consistent," Geathers said. "We have to keep it going."
The Block award honors players who demonstrate commitment to the values of sportsmanship and courage. Each NFL team selects one player as its nominee. Geathers will be honored with other teams' recipients at the annual awards banquet in Baltimore after the 2013 season.
"Robert has been a pleasure to work with since he arrived in 2004," Bengals head athletic trainer Paul Sparling said in a news release. "He's a guy who plays hard and plays every game that he possibly can, and the two times in his career when he's had a serious injury, he has responded like a true pro."
Geathers played in 74 straight games before a knee injury requiring surgery ended his season in late 2008. He picked up where he left off in 2009 and played in 52 of the next 55 games before being sidelined in this year's first Pittsburgh game.
"Robert is a quiet leader and a great role model for younger players," Sparling said. "He's the epitome of a professional in every sense of the word."