The Bengals feted their alumni downtown Sunday night at Morton's leading up to Monday's Ring of Honor induction of Boomer Esiason and Chad Johnson as they dined in a circle that's tighter than maybe they even know.
Take Ken Anderson, an inaugural Ring of Honor member, declaring himself the oldest player there at age 74. And maybe the youngest was a guy that just flew in from The Coast, 40-year-old Eric Henderson, who just happens to be the defensive line coach of the Rams team providing Monday night's opposition. Somebody wanted to know if he brought No. 99 on the flight.
"Oh yeah, he's here," said Henderson of Aaron Donald, the man who broke Bengaldom's heart two Super Bowls ago. "It's going to be a good game. We know you guys got something up your sleeve."
Henderson played just two games for the Bengals 15 years ago, but he's one of the most inspiring players they've ever had with a story that reads like a novel instead of a bio. After he lost his mother when he was ten in New Orleans, he helped raise his two younger siblings and somehow got them through Hurricane Katrina while he played at Georgia Tech and was getting his degree in business management. After his injury-plagued stint in Cincinnati, he has become one of the NFL's rising young coaches as he works his fifth season in L.A.
On Sunday, he just missed his old head coach, Marvin Lewis, gliding through to say hello to ownership and old friends before saying he'd see them Monday night. Lewis is known for helping develop Johson into one of the NFL's greatest receivers, but he also played a role in Esiason's story. No. 7's last NFL pass, a 77-yard game-winner to Darnay Scott came against the Ravens defense Lewis coordinated in Baltimore in 1997.
"You remember Boomer for his ability to dissect the defense," Lewis said. "Looking to hit the big plays all the time. And at that point, he was playing with house money. You hate to play quarterbacks playing with house money."
The NFL circle always seems to come around.
Anderson, the 1981 MVP and greatest Bengal of all when Esiason was drafted in 1984 to replace him, admitted they didn't have the greatest relationship back then. But 13 years later when Esiason returned as a backup and Anderson was his quarterbacks coach, they both got promoted late in the season. With Anderson calling the plays and Esiason executing them at the line of scrimmage, Anderson said, "We averaged 40 points a game and for some reason he and I were on the same page as coach and quarterback. That was probably the highlight of my coaching career those five games."
And this from a man who won a Super Bowl ring coaching the Steelers. Anderson says he's as proud of Esiason as he is of any player he ever coached because of his blockbuster work in the fight against cystic fibrosis. Esiason is one of Anderson's biggest boosters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Esiason, as he has been for the last two decades of Sundays, was in New York finishing his work for "NFL Today," and wasn't in the house. Johnson, like one of his releases off the line of scrimmage, was suddenly there graciously making the rounds before disappearing just as fast. But like Marco Battaglia told the crowd during story time, it didn't matter.
"Tonight means a lot to the people we're honoring," said Battaglia, the tight end who is one of the handful of guys who played with both Esiason and Johnson. "But it means more to the people supporting the honorees."
Battaglia, bred in Queens, lives close to Esiason in New York and they keep in touch frequently even though they played together just that one season. He played just one season with Johnson, but said if he played longer Johson never would have had the nickname Ochocinco. "I started calling him Beetlejuice at that minicamp after the draft. Smallest head you've ever seen."
Dennis Janson, the Walter Cronkite of Cincinnati TV sports anchors, paid his respects briefly, a reminder of why Esiason made the move from the fling to Scott to the broadcast booth look so seamless. Janson, along with the great Channel 9 storyteller John Popovich, mentored Esiason when they pulled off a coup and brought him to 9 as an analyst while he was still playing. Janson still remembers when the station sent them to L.A. to cover the Giants-Broncos Super Bowl.
"The best. Always on time. Never saw him look at his watch once," Janson recalled. "He'd always ask, 'Are we done? Do we need to shoot promos? Cut-ins?' Never big-timed anybody. He knew what we wanted. He was a pro."
One of Esiason's fellow analysts, T.J. Houshmandzadeh of Fox Sports, got to the mike and reminded everyone that his lifelong workout partner The Ocho was more than a celebrity. The best receiver and hardest worker he has ever seen. "Chad should be in the Hall of Fame," Houshmandzadeh said as he recounted running the L.A. hills. "Four miles out, four miles back. I thought Chad was cheating."
What goes around comes around in the NFL in a tight circle. The wide receivers coach for the Rams Monday night? Eric Yarber, the Oregon State receivers coach who got Johnson and Houshmandzadeh drafted in 2001. The guy they took to the Pro Bowl in 2008 as a Thank You.
Houshmandzadeh turned to Willie Anderson, inducted into the Ring of Honor last year, and wanted to thank him. Anderson is doing what he did as a player, keeping the locker room together and engaged. This time he's doing it through endless text chains.
"I'm on there with 40 guys I don't know, but I feel like I played with them," Houshmandzadeh said.
One of those guys is Tony McGee, another guy who played with both Esiason and Johnson. He wanted to make sure they knew Carl Pickens was in the house. Pickens was one of the league's most dominant wide receivers in the 1990s, a guy who perfected the jump ball long before 21st-century magicians A.J. Green and Tee Higgins.
"Carl had a delicate relationship with the organization," McGee said. "But time heals all wounds, right? Time heals all wounds, right?"
And then McGee urged Pickens into the Ring of Honor on a night the circle tightened.
FULL CIRCLE: With Donald in town, it's a good time to recall that the first moves the Bengals made after he knocked down Joe Burrow on the last play of the Super Bowl were to sign center Ted Karras and right guard Alexa Cappa in the first hours of free agency. Cappa had played him in the NFC Divisional that same season and believes what makes him so good is his quickness. Karras never lined up against him in the Super Bowl his Patriots beat the Rams, but he did go against him three years ago while playing for the Dolphins.
"First ballot Famer. Have to account for him every single play. Fast. Very quick," Karras said.
"They've got a bunch of good players over there, but obviously he's been at the pinnacle of the league for the better part of a decade now. This is why we're here. Trying to win games and we have to try and corral him on a Monday night."
Karras remembers watching that Super Bowl wising he was playing in it but also rooting for the Bengals: "I've always been a fan of Joey B and that whole season was a magical run for the Bengals."
SECONDARY THOUGHTS: The Rams' defense has two starters who started last week in the 30-23 loss to the 49ers and started against the Bengals in the Super Bowl. The secondary has been cleared out with Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey gone and safety Nick Scott playing for the Bengals. Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase knows of former Steelers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon because he played against him the previous two seasons. The other cornerbacks are second-year players Cobie Durant and Derion Kendrick. The safeties are another second-year man in Russ Yeast and fourth-year Jordan Fuller playing in his 34th game.
"They're playing different (coverages)," said Chase, who had five catches for 89 yards in the Super Bowl, 46 on one play, as he saw some one-on-ones. "They're playing more quarters. More (cover) two, and a little of matched now. They've got a little bit of a different defense now."
Still, they're coming off a season where they were first in red zone defense and 16 interceptions, tied for seventh in the league.