Posted: 7:35 a.m.
With one more pick, O'Neal (left) will break the single-season club record held by Ken Riley.
Ken Riley, who has more interceptions than all but four men who ever lived, not only wants Deltha O'Neal to get that 10th pick this Sunday in Detroit, "I want him to get as many as he can get," Riley said Thursday night from his home in Bartow, Fla. "Records were made to be broken."
But Riley made his Bengals record nine interceptions as impenetrable as time itself. It's been 29 years since he set the club record. It was 1976. It was another 10-win season for the Bengals, but it was the first year Paul Brown didn't coach the team. Jimmy Carter had had just come from nowhere to be elected president, but Riley couldn't get elected to the Pro Bowl coming from one of football's most esteemed secondaries.
In fact, in one of pro football's greatest mysteries, the sixty-ish Riley, as gracious as ever, never made it to a Pro Bowl. But he is delighted O'Neal looks to be headed to his second and his first as a Bengal as the AFC's leading vote-getter by popular vote. O'Neal will know Dec. 21. Riley may never know.
"We had good defenses and a lot of good players, but I can't tell you why," Riley said. "I'm happy for the Bengals and their defense. I've been able to watch a couple of games down here. I know this guy has been in the league about (five) years. He came out of nowhere."
Not only did Riley never go to a Pro Bowl, he's not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He racked up the second most interceptions of his generation, behind only Paul Krause, and one Hall of Fame voter actually said of his colleagues after a recent vote, "Three percent of the people in that room," had never heard of Ken Riley.
"That's just hard to believe," O'Neal said before Thursday's practice. "Sixty-five interceptions is unbelievable. That's something I aspire to. What an accomplishment that would be. Yeah, he should be in the Hall of Fame."
There are a lot of similarities between the two. O'Neal played a little offense in college at Cal, enough to score two touchdowns each rushing and receiving, and got switched to receiver in the last, bad days in Denver. Riley played a lot of offense as the Florida A&M quarterback before he joined the Bengals in 1969. He left in 1983 after a Bengals-record 207 games and only after he had passed his secondary coach, Dick LeBeau, on the all-time interceptions list.
"I had good hands. I could have played receiver," Riley said. "I didn't drop too many. I had quick feet. I could recover."
He was smart, too. Smart enough that he led the AFC in picks during the last two seasons of his career.
NFL's ALL-TIME INTERCEPTION LEADERS:
- Paul Krause: 16 seasons, 81 interceptions, elected to Hall of Fame 1998 Emlen Tunnel: 14, 79, elected 1967 Rod Woodson: 17, 71, Not eligible yet Night Train Lane: 14, 68, elected 1974 Ken Riley: 15, 65, not elected Ronnie Lott: 14, 63, elected 2000 Dave Brown: 15, 62, not elected Dick LeBeau: 14, 62, not elected Emmitt Thomas: 13, 58, not elected Mel Blount: 14, 57, elected 1989 Bobby Boyd: 9, 57, not elected Eugene Robinson: 16, 57, not elected Johnny Robinson: 12 57, not elected Everson Walls: 13, 57, not elected Lem Barney: 11, 56, elected 1992
"You had to be smart if you were going to play for Paul Brown," Riley said. "He wanted students of the game. At the end, they thought I had lost my speed, but I could still run a little bit. And I was smarter."
One of those students played with Riley two years later at safety. Yale's Dick Jauron is now the interim Lions head coach. When Riley left his job as secondary coach of the Packers in the mid-1980s, he recommended Jauron to take his place. Small world.
"Yeah, that would be something if he got the record Sunday," Riley said. "Dick is a friend of mine. He was a smart player. We had Tommy Casanova, too. I think I could have played a few more years. When I was coaching in Green Bay, I was the best cornerback."
O'Neal may get the record in front of Jauron, but he probably won't be able to get it with Riley's flair. In the last game of '76 and in Joe Namath's last game as a Jet, Riley picked off the Hall of Famer three times in the Bengals' 42-3 rout.
"Charley Winner was the defensive backs coach and he finally took me out of the game," Riley said. "He said, 'Well, we know you're going to the Pro Bowl for sure now,' and it didn't happen."
There must have been a rule. Two guys from the same position and the same team couldn't go. Lemar Parrish, Riley's more flamboyant partner on the corner, went in one of his six Pro Bowl selections.
O'Neal wishes he could take his corner mate with him, but at least Tory James went last year. But if Riley doesn't think about it, neither does O'Neal.
"I'd like to go to the big bowl," said O'Neal, and asked if he'd trade a trip to Hawaii for a trip back to Detroit, he said "definitely."
Well, Riley does think about the Hall of Fame. But only when approached by Hall of Famers.
"I see guys like Mel Blount and Lem Barney," said Riley of his contemporary corners, "and they tell me they don't understand why I'm not. I played against (Steelers wide receiver) John Stallworth and he was asking me about it. I think it's just that we were a new team in a small market. We had some good defenses, but I remember one year we all made Player the Week and none us made (the Pro Bowl)."
That '76 defense finished fifth. The year before they were seventh. In '83, they were first. Riley agrees; interceptions come in bunches and experience begins to matter as much as talent.
"Back then, I didn't read much of anything, I just reacted pretty much," said Riley of the pilfering of Namath. "When Dick LeBeau came, he helped me get out of some bad habits. I think it actually helped me that I never played cornerback. It kept me out of getting into some bad habits when I was young. Then when Dick came, he helped with some little things. Like my cushion. Technique things. I considered myself a technician."
O'Neal, who has 28 interceptions in 86 career games, is trying to become as much a technician as an athlete. If he played in as many games as Riley, he'd end up with 67 interceptions.
"That's a long time," O'Neal said. "Amazing."
Twenty-nine years is a long time, too.
"I hope he does it," Riley said.
"I want to do it," O'Neal said. "I want the 10th. But I don't want to talk about it until I do it."