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Prime week for secondary

Posted: 6:55 a.m.



It has been a week of the secondary.

It began Saturday when Michigan cornerback Leon Hall came out of the maize and blue yonder in the draft and it culminated Friday night at the Bengals alumni dinner when head coach Marvin Lewis tapped a defensive back from each of the Super Bowl teams to address the rookie class.

"Stay in your playbooks," said cornerback Louis Breeden while safety Solomon Wilcots warned, "There are so many different ways to lose it and so few ways to do it right," as they spoke to a group of players that may end up being part of the best secondary since they played.

Which is roughly a couple of presidents ago. Breeden was drafted during the first year of Jimmy Carter's presidency in 1977 and Wilcots arrived 10 years later in Breeden's last season and the next to last year of Ronald Reagan's two terms.

In what has become one of the lasting legacies of Lewis's administration, the alumni dinner bridges 40 years and a gulf of differences.

On Friday night, for instance, Bengals president Mike Brown spoke to a crowd that included one of his biggest critics, Bob Trumpy, the fine tight end and even better announcer, and revealed his standard response when asked if the old guys could have played now even though the players are bigger and faster.

"The best players of every era could have played in any era," Brown said. "We've had a lot of tight ends here, but none of them ran faster than Bob Trumpy."

It's the kind of night where Steve Kosky, who grew up on Cincinnati's eastern fringe in Anderson Township and is here on a tryout from Miami of Ohio, said he found himself in an elevator face-to-face with Hall of Famer Anthony Muñoz.

"He asked how I was doing. It was a short conversation, but it was a thrill," Kosky said. "You grow up watching these guys and you end up here sitting down eating with them ... it's special."

This dinner was particularly significant for what Lewis crafted seamlessly and subtly. His two speakers migrated to Cincinnati via the draft. They played on Super Bowl teams. They settled in the community. They fashioned successful post-playing careers.

"You are always a part of this team," Brown and Lewis told the alums.

But it was a night, really, for the kids. The messages of Breeden and Wilcots were orange-and-black simple: Stay out of trouble and stay in shape. Be good in the community and the community will be good to you.

"You're going to get opportunities you never thought would be open to you. Don't walk through the door; run through it," Wilcots told them after recalling that the NFL had been formed by a group of men that threw in 100 bucks apiece for their teams 87 years ago.

"However hard you worked to get here, you have to work twice as hard to stay here," he said, reminding them the league had grown like their own careers.

"It can all be gone," he said, "in one bad moment."



It was probably a coincidence that Lewis chose a couple of DBs to give the talks. But with the back-to-back drafting of first-round cornerbacks, the Bengals could be entering another secondary golden age, which has always seemed to mirror the team's rise.

After Breeden (33 career interceptions) and Ken Riley (65) lined up at corner in Super Bowl XVI, they would eventually stand 1-2 on the club's career interceptions list. When Wilcots took his spot next to free safety David Fulcher and corners Eric Thomas and Lewis Billups in Super Bowl XXIII, he was part of a unit that had reached cult status that season complete with the SWAT poster.

With an audience of Hall, fourth-rounder Marvin White, the free safety from TCU, and seventh-rounder Chinedum Ndukwe, the strong safety from Notre Dame, Wilcots and Thomas couldn't help notice the similarities.

Johnathan Joseph, last year's first-round cornerback and this year's starter, had stopped by practice Friday afternoon and chatted with Brown on the sidelines. Madieu Williams, the starting free safety suddenly three years removed from the second round, spent some time in the locker room with the kids Friday.

"You can see how they're drafting players. At some point, you have to keep people from making explosive plays on you," said Thomas, who recalled the words of his defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "If you give up one or two plays of 40 yards, you're going to lose that game. It puts you back on your heels."

To the younger generation, Thomas is best known as Box Miller's sidekick on their entertaining radio sports talk show on "The Buzz." Wilcots' broadcasting career has far outstripped his playing career as one of the game's ubiquitous voices on NFL Network and CBS.

But in 1987, Thomas was a second-round pick out of Tulane and Wilcots was an eighth-round pick out of Colorado. They joined Billups and Fulcher, who had arrived in the second and third rounds, respectively, in 1986.

Breeden, a seventh-round pick out of North Carolina Central in '77, crossed paths with them for just one season before the new secondary took over. It should have been longer than for two seasons.

'We didn't get the six seasons you need to be a great secondary. It just didn't stay together," Thomas said.

He tore up his ACL playing basketball in the spring of '90 and Billups, whose off-field demons caught up to him in a fatal car crash in the mid-1990s, was gone after 1991 following an injury in an off-field incident that knocked him out of a Monday night game in Buffalo.

"ET could run," said Breeden, an independent producer for the Castleton Group. "He was really a good player. You've got to have corners. Not having them is something that has hurt them in the past. I was listening to the experts before the draft and they were saying, 'Draft this, draft that,' and I'm thinking, 'Boy, I'm really hoping for a DB in the first round. They really need it,' so I was pretty happy when they got (Hall).

"And they got some safeties, too, and that's something they needed because they didn't have any depth. I think they're there, now I'm just hoping the rest of the defense holds up in some spots."

Thomas has been talking about it on the radio for years. You can take your pass rushers. You can take your middle backers. You can take your run stuffers.

"When you start building from that back end, and people can say what they want, but when you start building from that back end and you keep explosive plays from happening, you're going to win games."

Thomas enjoyed watching that E.T. clone last year, and there was Joseph even wearing his number 22.



"He definitely reminds me of me a little bit. He's got that flat-out speed," Thomas said. "He can run with anyone. His hips are fluid enough to get in and out of breaks and still be explosive. Think about all the balls that he closed on last year. To be able to put it in another gear like that is so important because no one can run away from you."

Thomas has only seen Hall on TV, but he's looking forward to stopping by one of Saturday's two practices. He has a pretty good idea of what he's going to see after spending time with defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan at the dinner.

"Chuck says he's really technically sound and is really advanced in fundamentals for his age," Thomas said. "You've got to have the corners for a long time, plus I think Madieu can be a Pro Bowl player."

If the alumni can see some similarities, they also have some advice. Wilcots told them about how he and Thomas would each put 100 bucks on the table each week as rookies and challenge each other to make more plays than the other guy, even if it was on special teams.

"We knew we were going to win in '88," Wilcots said. "We just knew it. ET and I had gone back to California for only about five weeks in the offseason, and we came back ready. We felt like we could put them over the top. These guys can, too, if they feel like that and work like that. They can be the guys that get them there if they think like that."

Thomas remembered the closeness that began to bud in '87 with the rookies and then it grew in the now legendary offseason of '88.

"Lewis, bless his soul, liked to go his own way," Thomas said. "We would try to get him involved with us and when he did, when he did hang around with us, we played better."

Whether it's the high school reunion or the old timer's game, it's why they are so special. What was and what might have been and what might be all get rolled into one giddy moment.

"I had 33 interceptions, but I dropped 223," Breeden said.

Told that Joseph is still looking for his first NFL interception after getting counted for 10 drops his rookie season, he smiled and said, "I'd rather get my hands on then not being able to make a play."

At the end of a week far from secondary, the old secondary couldn't wait.

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