Shaping up for stretch run

Chris Crocker

Time to knock on wood in the Bengals bye week. They appeared to have mastered the conditioning challenges brought on by the lockout as one of 10 teams with just three players or fewer on injured reserve after six weeks. Nearly half the league, 14 teams, has at least six on IR, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Throw in the Bengals healthy pad in the fourth quarter, 60-37, and it's another sign that head coach Marvin Lewis has been hitting all the right notes in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.

"Marvin has been driving the bus since early in the offseason on this; he kept emphasizing everything was going to be different," strength and conditioning coach Chip Morton said. "It's always a lot of factors. But I think we've managed it well and we've got a bunch of pros that came in here and know how to work. Most of them came in here in good shape and they keep at it."

The reasons for the strong conditioning start seem to run the spectrum from flat-out plain luck, to the research Lewis asked Morton and assistant Jeff Friday to do during the lockout, to the restrictions imposed on practice by the new collective bargaining agreement, to the rest and recovery the lockout itself imposed.

Of course, injuries and their impact are always a tough subject to get the arms around. The Packers won last year's Super Bowl despite having a slew of key players sidelined and this season the Giants are 4-2 just like the Bengals and have nine guys on IR, the second most in the NFL. The surprising quick start by the Bills hasn't been slowed by seven starters on IR. The Dolphins, with two, are winless.

It all depends, too, on which players go down. The Bengals haven't had a starter go on IR, although wide receiver Jordan Shipley (knee), linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy (Achilles), and tight end Bo Scaife (neck) were all slated to be regulars on either special teams or from scrimmage. They've lost only three starts to injuries and none on offense. 

"A lot of it is just plain luck," said veteran safety Chris Crocker, who missed the last half of last season with a knee injury. "Look what happened to me last year. I didn't get hit and I got hurt. Staying healthy is a key factor for winning seasons and I think you just have some years you're healthy and some years you're not. But I also think the new CBA has helped."

Crocker points to the decrease in pounding during the week brought on by the new regulation that teams can practice in pads only 14 times during the season, which pretty much limits it to once a week and for the Bengals that's usually Wednesdays.

But it's not so much the less contact as it is the less wear and tear of a full practice that Morton thinks has helped cut down on injuries. The less time on their feet, and that even includes simple walkthroughs, can be a benefit.

"Fatigue is a big factor in injuries," Morton said. "The more tired you are on Sunday, the more likely you're going to get hurt. So you always have to monitor things like rest and recovery during the week."

His players have always kidded Lewis about running one of the toughest regimens in the NFL. "That's the rumor," Crocker said with a smile. "But that's OK. We're a young team. We have to work harder."

Lewis has always downplayed his rep as one of the league's top grinders. Last week the players were talking about how Thursdays before the new rules were usually full-padded days and now it is just helmets and shells. But Lewis said it's not much of a change from what he had already done.

"Only early in the year we had pads on Thursdays, but that's all and it wasn't always for the full practice," Lewis said. "Players only remember the one time. But I do think that guys are fresher."

That's because not only did the lockout take players out of the weight room and off the field during the spring, the new rules restricted training camp to one practice per day. Although there is a debate on that, too.

"But it was still a hard practice and we were out on the field just as much, if not more," Crocker said.

No matter, players simply haven't been pounding it all year like they have in the past and left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the club's representative to the NFL Players Association, thinks that's a factor on fewer injuries here, along with other reasons.

"It's a mixture. I think the CBA has definitely helped," Whitworth said. "I also think the way we practice, fast, physical, hard, is a reason. It gets us ready to do it like that on Sunday and we've always got people on the move. There's nobody standing around in practice and that's when guys seem to get rolled up on and stuff like that. Plus, we're a young team. We don't have as many older guys that are prone to getting hurt."

Lewis insists that if a player gets hurt in practice, it's a fluke. Exhibit A is starting middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, sidelined with a severely sprained ankle after practice last Thursday. The players weren't wearing pads, but Maualuga had the bad luck of leaping for a ball and coming back down on someone's foot.

It all gets down to knowing your team and Lewis has felt the pulse. All 32 clubs had the same rest that resulted from the lockout, but not all have had the same success in the training room. The Jaguars lead the league with 11 players on IR. The Falcons have none.

During the lockout, Lewis dispatched Morton and Friday to talk to some strength coaches that worked in the NFL before there were offseason programs and spring on-field practices. Before the late '90s, teams never worked as a full unit during the season except for one weekend minicamp between January and July.

The lockout pretty much dictated a return to the old days and so Morton went to Jerry Attaway, the strength coach for the 49ers during their dynasty in the '80s and '90s, and emerged with pages of notes.

"He emphasized keeping a closer eye on the players and the number of their reps in training camp," Morton said. "He said some guys simply weren't going to be ready to go hard in practice right away and that more stress wasn't going to be the best thing for them, but just the opposite. And Marvin did a great job with our coaches at every position in reminding them to keep an eye on their guys. And I think they did a nice job bringing certain guys along and letting them ease in."

Case in point, Morton says, is defensive lineman Jon Fanene. Lewis made no bones about the fact he wasn't pleased with the extra weight Fanene brought into camp, yet the coaches worked him well enough into the mix that he has been productive right away in the line's rotation.

"Another thing Jerry emphasized is rest and recovery and that's something we've always pushed," Morton said. "But the way we did it this year was good because we went back and took out the things we didn't need, added what we needed now, and made it more streamlined."

The theme of less is more has continued during the bye week with Lewis letting the players go for five days. But Crocker knows what waits.

"He's the son (of a steel worker)," Crocker said, "We're going to continue to work hard when we get back here."

BOOMER RECALL: Boomer Esiason, that other franchise quarterback Bengals president Mike Brown traded before Tuesday, says Brown had no choice but to take the Raiders offer of a first- and second-round pick for Carson Palmer.

"Couldn't pass it up; it's a great deal for them," Esiason said Tuesday. "You simply don't know what you have in Carson. Is he the guy from five years ago or last year? I think he's got something left but you really don't know."

After nine seasons in Cincinnati, Esiason, 32, was sent to the Jets in 1993 for a third-round pick.

"Steve Tovar," Esiason said quickly of the Ohio State linebacker the Bengals drafted with that pick.

After eight seasons, Palmer, 31, netted a lot more.

"I was basically a castoff," Esiason said. "I was benched for David Klingler, so it's a totally different situation. I was looking for a fresh start with a new team. I got it and that's all Carson wants. We'll see where it goes.

"It's going to be interesting to see how he plays now that he's out from under all that stuff in Cincinnati with the problems they had with the receivers. Plus, I thought he was hurting physically the last couple of years. If he's healthy now that's going to be another plus."

Esiason could relate to Palmer going to Raiders head coach Hue Jackson, the man that recruited him to USC. Esiason went to Jets head coach Bruce Coslet, the man that oversaw his best years as the Bengals offensive coordinator.

"There looked to be an amazing confluence of events to make it happen," Esiason said. "Starting with Jason Campbell getting hurt."

Esiason, one of the voices of CBS sports, says the trade is a major development in the surprising rise of the Bengals. And he's glad they're off the national radar.

"Along with the Bills, the Bengals are the story in the NFL this season," Esiason said. "No one saw how good they were going to be on defense and they've got some young talent on offense. The trade is going to let them add to it. They seem to be building something. They don't want to be on the radar. Chad (Ochocinco) is no longer tweeting from there and Terrell Owens isn't talking about his reality show. It was great seeing Marvin in the locker room last week. It was like, 'Hey, I like coaching these guys. This is football.' "

CHIEFLY SPEAKING: It looks like Palmer is going to start right away against Kansas City this week. He played the Chiefs four times with the Bengals, although one was the 2005 finale in which he only played a half the week before the wild-card game. The Bengals went 2-2 and he had a passer rating of 84.5 on 71-of-95 passing for 640 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions.

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