The Cardinals made Ray Horton their defensive coordinator Wednesday but Eric Thomas knew as early as 1987 that some NFL team would give him a shot to run his own show.
That was Thomas's rookie year with the Bengals, when they drafted him in the second round out of Tulane to eventually supplant Horton at cornerback. Horton knew the gig. Four years before he'd been drafted in the second round out of Washington to help replace the retiring Kenny Riley.
"Every time I came off the field in practice or a game, he'd be there with something to help me," Thomas recalled Thursday. "He knew why I was there. He couldn't do the things I could do athletically on the edge. But Ray is very, very smart, and he was a fantastic teammate. I never felt he resented me. No question he was a big reason I made the Pro Bowl (so quickly)."
Thomas got the nod the next season, which turned out to be Horton's last in Cincinnati. Horton moved on to get the Super Bowl ring in Dallas that eluded him in his last series as a Bengal dominated by Joe Montana's magic, but he did return in the late '90s to coach under his old defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau. They would be reunited in Pittsburgh a few years later and it now looks like Horton is tapping this Bengals staff.
Sources said Thursday that the Cardinals have asked for permission to interview assistant secondary coach Louie Cioffi for the secondary job and while he appears to be the leading candidate nothing would be done officially until Monday. Cioffi, 37, was on that first Bengals staff LeBeau formed under head coach Bruce Coslet in 1997 where he was the defensive assistant and Horton was the secondary coach.
"The NFL is the only business in America where they bring in your replacement and ask him to train you," said Solomon Wilcots, the national broadcaster who first toiled in the NFL as a Bengals defensive back. "I switched to safety my second year and he was the reason I was able to start right at the beginning of the year. Ray's very bright. He always saw the game differently. He could see the defense in the big picture."
Wilcots arrived in that 1987 draft in the eighth round and the next year at safety he teamed with Thomas to form one half of the S.W.A.T. Team poster with cornerback Lewis Billups and strong safety David Fulcher. Horton was never in the picture, but he was a valuable member of that secondary.
"He could play all the secondary spots," Wilcots said. "He knew the defense so well that he'd come in on third down for me or Eric or Lewis and come up with a couple of picks. I'd shake my head and say, 'How did you do that?' "
For instance, Horton taught Thomas all about three receivers to a side, the dreaded "Trips" formation.
"If you've got two receivers to a side and a back offset, you've got to recognize what they're trying to do," Thomas said. "As a young guy, you want to jump one of those guys, but somebody is going deep. He taught me about keeping your proper depth and still getting a piece of him at five yards. He was great with technique for me."
Thomas, who runs the Eric Thomas Performance and Fitness Academy in Cincinnati's Madisonville area, says he's going to call Horton for a job because he knows he's going to bring to Arizona the same scheme they played here.
And that reminds Wilcots of what happened to the Bengals in the late '90s when LeBeau tried to bring his Steelers 3-4 to the Bengals. Horton's challenge, he says, is to be patient enough to allow the personnel to catch up to the scheme.
"They have to replenish the roster; they've let a lot of players leave," Wilcots said of Arizona. "Everybody wants to be Pittsburgh, but they don't have the James Harrisons and the Troy Polamalus. They don't have the patience to sit high draft picks like Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley for that first year so they can learn it. Other teams put them out there and they struggle."
True enough. The first draft pick of the Coslet-LeBeau era, linebacker Reinard Wilson, started right away and never made it. The next year, first-round linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons also started as rookies, as did another second-round corner, Artrell Hawkins. Spikes and Simmons became excellent players, but Hawkins took time to become solid.
"He didn't have any veterans in front of him," Wilcots said, "but he eventually became a good player. Look at ET and me our rookie year. We sat. There's a lot to learn."
But he doesn't doubt Horton can teach it now like he did then.
"He probably had to wait longer than he should have for a coordinator's job," Wilcots said. "But I think he could have had a job earlier, he was just selective on who he'd be working for where."