La'el Collins made it a point to call Cincinnati home before Thursday's practice as he discussed Sunday's return to Dallas (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), the place he rose to prominence as one the league's better right tackles during the seven previous seasons.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who famously pursued Collins in the wake of the 2015 draft, appeared to give him a little shot when he told the media this week that he watched tape of Collins' Bengals debut last Sunday against the Steelers.
Collins didn't take the bait. Told Jones watched his every snap, he said, "That's cool."
Collins, projected as a first-round pick, fell out of the draft when he was dragged into a police investigation and cleared at a late hour. Jones then recruited him, hosting him at his home in a meeting that also included then-Cowboys offensive line coach Frank Pollack.
It was the first of three contracts Collins signed with Jones. The Cowboys released him back in March after he missed the 2020 season with hip surgery and five games in 2021 when he fought a missed drug testing suspension.
"I'm very grateful for Jerry, he's a phenomenal owner," Collins said. "He changed my family's life for generations. I'm forever thankful for that and the opportunity he gave me and believing in me. I was there seven years. The whole Jones family. I'm forever grateful for them."
It sounds like both sides were looking to turn the page. The Bengals offensive line needed a powerful, physical and veteran leader and Collins fit the bill. And Collins leaped at a reunion with Pollack, the Bengals current line coach.
"At this stage of my career, any player wants to be coached and coached hard, and wants that feedback," Collins said. "I think Frank does a great job at that. Obviously, playing a position is all about the Johnny and Joes and not the Xs and Os. It's just one of those things."
Collins had a bit of a tussle Sunday with NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, but he also allowed just one pressure on 65 pass-blocking snaps. Like everyone else, Collins thinks his line got better in the second half and he thought he was solid but is looking to improve.
"I think it was OK. I think it was solid. When I watch the tape, obviously I'm my biggest critic," Collins said. "There's a lot of things I want to do. I feel like I'm finally getting my football pad legs under me. Everything is starting to turn over.
"We settled in. But when you look at this team and our offense, nobody blinked. Our defense did a hell of a job and kept us in that game and we went out there and did what we had to do to get back and give ourselves a fighting chance. The biggest thing was we just settled in and played ball."
Last season Collins mentored the Cowboys' seemingly unblockable rookie middle linebacker Micah Parsons. Parsons, who had two more sacks in the opener to give him 15 in 17 career games said back in the spring he got some great advice from Collins:
"I make them fear the speed and everything else can go off that. They've got to respect you in some aspect…Once you show that, then you can do all your counters, all your moves."
Now we'll see what Parsons uses on Collins.
"He's a hell of a player. He's young, he has juice and energy. The defense goes as he goes," Collins said. "They look to do a lot of things with him. I remember Micah coming as a rookie working on pass rush moves and telling him to do certain things. From that standpoint, he's a talented player … he's coming into his own."
But Collins gets a bit miffed when asked if this thing is going to turn into a chess match with his old pupil.
"I think he's really starting to get a feel for rushing off the edge. He knows what he wants to do. He's still very raw, but super talented," Collins said. "One thing about it, it's a physical game. This isn't sitting at a table playing chess or checkers, it's about who is going to hit who first."
_Collins has been in a huddle with Cooper Rush, the Cowboys backup getting his second NFL start Sunday in place of Dak Prescott. Rush is in his sixth season with Dallas and won his lone start last season throwing for 325 yards in a 40-24 win at Minnesota.
"We've talked a little bit, let them line up and do what they do," Collins said of his scouting report. "When they all on the same page, it's a hell of a defense. I'm very confident in them knowing what they need to do to go out there and do what they need to do … He's definitely a quality player, a great guy. He's there for a reason. He can go out there and do some special things, just like any opponent you got to make sure you are ready to go."
_Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins missed Thursday's practice because of personal reasons after he was limited Wednesday with a concussion.