Posted: 10 a.m.
The Bengals have an "Inn Crowd" this spring, too. No surprise, really, since the Montgomery Inn Boathouse is a zone blitz away from Paul Brown Stadium.
The eye-opener is that it is a relative outsider that hooked up the secondary for a recent meal on the river. Chris Crocker, the freshly-minted four-year, $10 million safety, wasted no time dropping some of it on the check for a let's-get-it-going dinner.
"It was a good way to get back into it. We've got all the same guys from last year, so it was a good way just to hang out," Crocker says.
Crocker didn't show up here until the day before Halloween last year and it has been all treats and no tricks out of a bag that had been through three teams, six seasons, and 80 games. On the field he immediately became the savvy, versatile field general the Bengals have sought for years, and off the field he became a rallying point for a group of kids that weren't even in the NFL yet when the Browns traded Crocker to the Falcons in the spring of 2006.
"The experience he brings to the table and his willingness to share with everybody separates him and is taking our group to another level," says Chinedum Ndukwe, his fellow starting safety. "The fact that he's sharing his experiences is something a lot of the guys in the past haven't been doing in our room."
Ndukwe teased Crocker on Wednesday; trying to get him to come up with the quote about selfishness he gave up the other day in what is an easy relationship between the kid and the veteran. He calls Crocker "Old Man," and with last month's release of Dexter Jackson, the roster doesn't lie. Crocker turned 29 last month, a year older than safety Mike Doss, and he's played 35 more NFL games than anybody in the secondary. But that's not why he has eased seamlessly into a leadership role.
"You can't try to be a leader; it just sort of happens. Most of the time it's because of your play," Crocker says. "You let your play speak for yourself instead of saying a lot. I've been in a position where I've made a lot of plays and try to lead by example and hope my teammates follow."
After Crocker jammed 48 tackles, 1.5 sacks, a pick, and a forced fumble into the last eight games, guys like Ndukwe and cornerback David Jones that are both heading into their third seasons are listening.
"Crock's been around awhile," Jones says. "He's definitely a leader, but on the entire defense. Young guys need to mature and grow and Crock is a good guy to have around."
And Crocker is looking at a fourth-year guy like cornerback Jonathan Joseph. They played one game together, the tie against the Eagles the week before Crocker got into the starting lineup for the last six games.
"He had to leave because his foot was bothering him and he was out for the year. Now he's one of the guys back," Crocker says. "We've got a bunch of guys coming back from injury. I'm excited. It's going to be a good year. We've got a lot of talent back there and now we've got depth."
In a way, Crocker is also back in what has usually been a tumultuous spring for him. In '06 there was the trade that still eats at him because he thought his future was in Cleveland. Last year, he didn't sign with the Dolphins until April 2.
"Last year I was fighting for a roster spot, trying to earn a job," Crocker says. "This year it's completely different from the standpoint I already know what I'm going to be doing and they know what to expect from me."
Crocker and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer are textbook examples of what works in the NFL. Zimmer looks for solid guys that can not only do what he wants, but is willing. Crocker may not have the big resume or the young legs or long checkbook, but his kind of experience and brains is what wins games.
"He's been on other teams. He's seen how it is in different places. He's a player that's been cut and he understands how important football is and what a privilege it is to play in this league," says Louie Cioffi, the assistant secondary coach in charge of safeties. "When we have a big group of young guys, someone like that in that group is very valuable."
Ndukwe got back in time from his foot injury to start the last two games with Crocker, those wins over the Browns and Chiefs in which the Bengals allowed just six points and eight third-down conversions. He's taking notes how Crocker can read formations and pass routes.
"He knows players' strengths and their weaknesses," Ndukwe says. "Those last two games I think you could tell we were doing a lot of different things. They were thinking I was coming; he was coming, so I think it gave teams quite a bit of problems.
Ndukwe feels like he's ready for a break-out year after two seasons of impressing with physical, smart play. He thinks Crocker can help get him there.
"It always helps to have someone who's done it. Who has walked your path before," Ndukwe says. "Chris was never shy about letting you know what you needed to do, how you needed to do it. It's been great. Especially for guys that haven't been in the league seven, eight years. It's different. There are tricks to the trade.
"There are certain situations I think I'm pretty good at already, but he takes it to another level calling out plays, which the good ones do. Hopefully I'll be at that level this year calling out the routes that are coming."
When the Browns drafted Crocker out of Marshall in the third round in 2003, he came under the wing of the veteran safety Robert Griffith, the former Viking who ended up playing 13 NFL seasons. He has always remembered.
"He was the oldest DB when I got to Cleveland. He was a guy that knew how to go about his craft," Crocker says. "We were a tight-knit group. He felt that was important. We did a lot of things on and off the field together. He's a guy that had a lot of respect."
Special teams coach Darrin Simmons noticed it when the Bengals would prepare for Cleveland and he noticed it back in November when the guy came in here and pitched right into his unit devastated with injury.
"A pro," Simmons says.
Crocker doesn't know if the dinner thing is going to become a weekly deal. He would like them to get together at least once a month. And coaches are invited, too. After he had Cioffi scout out a place (The Boathouse must remind Cioffi of those Long Island eateries on the water), Crocker invited him and secondary coach Kevin Coyle.
"They're good guys. And they're in this thing together," Crocker says. "We're all depending on each other."
At some point you figure the group will make it to Rookwood, the Mount Adams restaurant blending history and hip of which Ndukwe is a co-owner.
"We already made it there at the end of last season," says Crocker, his own blend of experience and youth. "We already dropped a check there."