Bengals safety Chris Crocker has met first-ballot Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez on several occasions down through the years and they have formed a mutual admiration society. Rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham has admired Gonzalez from afar on tape and he admitted this week that he wouldn't mind meeting him before the Bengals play Gonzalez's Falcons this Sunday at the Georgia Dome (1 p.m., Cincinnati's Channel 12).
This is a big week for tight ends. In one of their main stories this week Sports Illustrated hailed the NFL's current crop as "The New Go To Guys," and named Gonzalez as the second greatest tight end of all-time behind Mike Ditka. Another potential Hall of Fame tight end, Shannon Sharpe, came to Cincinnati this week to sit down with head coach Marvin Lewis and his wide receivers for a Sunday segment on CBS' NFL Today.
But it was just another work week for Gresham, who has quietly picked away at learning his trade in these first five games. Away from the glare, Gresham is chatty, interesting, intense and politely admits he's not a big media guy. Which is why he's been under the radar in a season he is on the verge of setting a bunch of club records, the soonest of which will be most catches by a rookie tight end.
But one thing is clear: Gresham isn't going to be low profile much longer. Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome, another Hall of Fame tight end, has said for a year this rookie class is as good he's seen in a decade and Gresham was the first one taken at No. 21.
And his rookie numbers compare pretty favorably to one Anthony David Gonzalez and that first year of 1997 in Kansas City. Gonzalez, the 13th player taken out of Cal, finished with 33 catches for 368 yards and two touchdowns and a long of 30.
Gresham already has two touchdowns with a long of 27 and is on pace for 70 catches and 506 yards, miles ahead of Bengals rookie tight end Tony McGee's 44 catches in 1993. It is also on pace to be better than wide receiver Cris Collinsworth's overall rookie record of 67 in that iconic 1981 season Dan Ross set the club record for tight ends with 71.
Gresham always seems to be running somewhere else with his playbook during lunch and doesn't let a microphone get in the way. Between sessions with tight ends coach Jon Hayes and special teams coach Darrin Simmons, Gresham doesn't have a whole lot of time, and he's putting in the time on the field, too. On Thursday he and quarterback Carson Palmer were the last two players off the field after going overtime on some routes and they walked into the locker room together locked in conversation.
"Just trying to get the details down; just trying to get everything right," said Gresham, who did draw some attention in the Tampa Bay game with some PDE on the sidelines.
Public display of emotion.
But he said this week it was directed at himself and wasn't an expression of his displeasure at not getting the ball.
"No, no," Gresham said. "I was frustrated with myself. It might have come off as more than that, but I was mad at myself. It's nothing."
Gresham had a tough last series that Sunday. He struggled a bit in the running game before he was called for a false start on the critical third-and-eight. The NFL later told the Bengals the refs made a mistake and that Gresham moved at the proper time. "That was big," he said, but the Bengals know it is going to take him time to assimilate both the run and pass game, the biggest challenge for any rookie tight end.
Which is one of the reasons Gresham watched Gonzalez a lot while he was playing at Oklahoma. At the moment, that's the one thing he'd like to take from Gonzalez.
"His understanding of the game," Gresham said. "He knows how to get in and out, where to be, how to beat pressure. He knows the right spot all the time and knows what's going on at all times."
But the most alluring thing is, "He knows how to catch the ball for a touchdown," Gresham said. "He's been doing it for so long. You've got to watch him. Day in and day out for so many years he does it. I try to mimic him, watch how he gets opens and runs routes."
If the 6-5, 243-pound Gonzalez is a Four Man in basketball – physical, a body-shielder, a leaper with relentless and gifted hands in tight places - then the 6-5, 260-pound Gresham is a Three Man. A shooting forward in the open floor gliding gazelle-like off the break.
But both provide the nightmare scenarios for modern defenses. Too big for DBs, too fast or strong for linebackers. It seems like ever since Kellen Winslow Sr., arrived on the scene and beget guys like Newsome, the complaint has always been the Bengals can never cover the tight end. Crocker's point is it's pretty hard to cover the good ones because of the nature of the matchup.
For instance, Crocker says the Bengals did a good job against Tampa Bay and Kellen Winslow Jr. He may have caught six balls for 75 yards. But he came in leading the league in third-down catches and he didn't have any.
"He didn't hurt us," Crocker said. "What we try and do is minimize the damage. Looking at the teams we've played this season, the tight ends have either been the best players or big parts of the offense.
"You can't stop them from making catches. They're going to make catches, but you have to make sure they don't hurt you. (Tight ends) are tough matchups, but it depends on the scheme, how they isolate him."
It would seem that the 5-11, 200-pound Crocker is just too small for Gonzalez and that a cagey cover linebacker like the 6-5, 240-pound Brandon Johnson would be a better fit.
"He's probably more savvy and faster than me," said the modest Johnson, a good enough cover player that he has been the team's most productive backer the past two years. "It will be an interesting challenge. He's got great hands and he runs great routes. He knows how to use his body, how to use his shoulders."
Stuff happens in battle with offensive schemes and Crocker has found himself matched with Gonzalez plenty despite the size difference. But the tight end is such a player that almost anyone could cover him and Crocker smiled said, "We're not telling secrets. Linebacker. Safety. Who knows?"
But Crocker hopes he gets a shot.
"I like playing against him. I would say he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. We both know what to expect from each other," Crocker said. "He's going to complain about not getting the ball. He's going to complain to the refs. He knows what kind of player I am. I know what kind of player he is. There's mutual respect for each other. I've heard it straight from his mouth. We talk during the game. It's very business-like."
Which is a good way to describe Gresham. He'll show some emotion if business is tough.
"I don't get down on myself," Gresham said. "What I was taught in college, if you're going to do something, you've got to do it 110 percent. If you go the wrong way, you've got to go the wrong way 100 miles an hour. This is what I like to do. Play the game. I love to have fun. I never get down on myself."
It looks like he's right on pace and that he'll need some patience. It didn't happen for Gonzalez overnight. His breakout year came in his third season with 11 touchdowns on 76 catches. In his second year, he also had two TDs with 59 catches, a number Gresham is on pace to reach in this season's 14th game.