Gary Russell (Getty Images)
Posted: 5 a.m.
Darrin Simmons, the Bengals special teams coach with the freeze-frame memory, knew right where to go to begin his in-depth study of Gary Russell this week.
He clicked his computer to last Nov. 20, when the Bengals played the Steelers, the game where Simmons knew Russell corked off one of the two longest kick returns against the Bengals in '08.
He also vaguely remembered how Russell finished off his 43-yard return and when Russell lowered his head on the screen and popped kicker Shayne Graham on his back, Simmons had the total recall.
Then he swapped screens and saw Russell finished fifth on the Steelers in special-teams tackles with eight during just 12 games.
"He's a physical guy, a physical runner who came in and did a job for them," Simmons said. "He had some production. I don't know much about him, but it looks like he's a pro."
Down the hall, running backs coach Jim Anderson is looking at pretty much the same guy that interested him when Russell came out of Minnesota as a free agent in 2007.
"He did a good job for the Steelers in goal-line and short yardage; he converted," Anderson said. "He was asked to play on (special) teams and he did a good job on a team that won a ring. He runs the zone and the things we do offensively. He's a big kid (5-11, 230) and he's got that work ethic you like."
Russell's pickup off waivers last week seems to be as popular as the arrival of free agents Laveranues Coles and Tank Johnson even though he's viewed as a short-yardage runner at worst and a No. 2 at best. Probably because Bengals fans recognize a fellow hard-working Midwesterner, as well as have grudging admiration for a guy who willingly did the dirty work for their bitter rivals in the Super Bowl-champion Steelers.
"Power; that's what I do," said Russell when asked Wednesday what he brings to the table, admitting he's no-frills all the way.
"That's how I've always been. Just play football."
That's what he did when he scored the last Super Bowl's first touchdown, giving Pittsburgh a 10-0 lead on a one-yard run in the first minute of the second quarter.
"It was a downhill play; that's what I do," said Russell, who scored five touchdowns between the regular season and postseason. "I don't celebrate. I don't spike it. I took that one to the sidelines and gave it to my grandparents. I kept three or four, or I just give it to the ref."
At 22, he's not too young to know what had just happened.
"A lot of guys never even play in a Super Bowl," he said, "but to score a touchdown in one is a good feeling."
His grandparents raised Russell on the south side of Columbus, Ohio. They now live on the east side, where they have that ball he carried against the Cardinals in a case. The blue-collar approach was passed on. His grandfather was supervisor of the janitorial department at Port Columbus and his grandmother worked as an in-home nurse before they retired.
"The Steelers and Bengals are big rivals and I know Cincinnati and Cleveland is a big rivalry, but I didn't follow it," Russell said. "I followed college ball ... I didn't follow teams, just individual players. My favorite was Marshall Faulk."
Russell averaged less than three yards per carry last year on 28 carries, but he can get to the goal line when it counts. A total of 19 of his carries came in the red zone and five went for touchdowns and eight for first downs.
He's not flashy on returns, either, as the Graham knockdown showed, averaging 23 yards per his 16 kick returns with no fumbles.
"Whatever they want me to do, I'm here to do it," said Russell, who didn't mind returning kicks. "It didn't bother me. It's a job. Let me go out there and I can do it. Third-and-1, anything."
And Anderson says that's what he's going to let Russell do. He won't pigeon-hole him in a role.
"We're going to let him be exposed to other things and see what he can do. It's our job as coaches to coach him," Anderson said. "I'm not going to say he's going to be just a third-down back or goal-line, or the No. 2. I'm not going to say that. Let's see what he can do."
Russell flunked out of Minnesota the year after he gained 1,130 yards with future Patriots starter Laurence Maroney in the Gophers backfield, but the Steelers and Bengals were his two biggest pursuers in free agency when his class came out in '07. He opted for the Steelers, in large part, because the Bengals had just drafted Kenny Irons in the second round.
But Irons' career ended on his fourth NFL carry. Russell's career looks like it is just getting started.
"Whatever they want me to do," he said.