Shotgun signing

Jeff Faine

Updated: 6:15 p.m. 

The Bengals had the shotgun trained on them and they responded with a snap signing Wednesday afternoon that suddenly gave them 117 NFL starts at center when just as suddenly they had none on Monday.

That's when they discovered Kyle Cook's ankle injury would take him out for maybe the first half of the season and maybe more. Although Cook's intelligence and decisive decision-making have been the microchip of the offensive line for three seasons and 50 straight games, the signing of Jeff Faine alleviates a lot of fears with a trip to Baltimore no more than a Ray Lewis stare away.

"I think he's got plenty of gas left and can play a couple of more years. He played well last year," said Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. "We're lucky we were able to get him at this point."

The Bengals went to the top of the free-agency board Monday morning when they got that first whiff of bad news and came down with the 6-3, 303-pound Faine, a solid performer throughout his career with three clubs who is a 2003 first-round pick and 2007 Pro Bowl alternate.

But Faine's biggest attraction may have been his 2008 stint with the Buccaneers, the first of his four seasons in Tampa Bay. Gruden, an assistant on brother Jon Gruden's staff than ran this version of the West Coast scheme, is pretty much running the same thing here.

"He's a very smart guy," Gruden said. "Very knowledgeable. He's played in a lot of different offenses against every kind of defense. And he's a very good athlete. He gets to the second level and he's quick."

Cook's status is still unknown heading into the final cuts on Friday. The Bengals could put him on season-ending injured reserve or decide to carry him and an extra offensive lineman if they think he'll be back for the second half of the season. They made room for Faine by releasing rookie wide receiver Justin Hilton before leaving for Indianapolis and Thursday's preseason finale (7 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12).

Because the deal got done quickly, it's believed the Bengals spent significant money on a one-year arrangement. Faine, scheduled to make the final $13 million of his $37 million package he signed with the Bucs in '08 over the next two seasons, became a salary cap casualty under new head coach Greg Schiano on March 15 and word is he had turned down minimum salary offers from a couple of clubs. It's believed the Bengals had to go more than a couple of million to secure him.

Faine and his new team face a daunting challenge as the Bengals try to replace the quarterback of their line in time for the Sept. 10 regular-season opener in Baltimore against Ravens Pro Bowl nose tackle Haloti Ngata and his notoriously aggressive defense that ranked third last year in the NFL.

But Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive line coach Paul Alexander have done this before successfully with a smart veteran center.

When Rich Braham and Larry Moore both got hurt in the 2004 opener, the Bengals were forced to sign 37-year-old Jerry Fontenot. Then weather problems delayed his arrival and he only had about a practice and a half before he started the Bengals 16-13 victory over the Dolphins on Sunday night that turned out to be quarterback Carson Palmer's first NFL victory.

But using that example, Alexander says right now it's a stretch to call Faine the Opening Day starter because Fontenot had been playing during the preseason.

"Jeff hasn't been playing, plus he has to learn our line calls," Alexander said. "The big thing is how quickly is he going to be able to assimilate the line calls when it comes to making last-second decisions that change entire blocking schemes. The one thing about Jerry and Jeff is they're both good players.

"What this does is give us options."

The Bengals are trying not to move Clint Boling from left guard to center so they can keep their prized young guard tandem intact that includes rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler. But that means the next option at center is Trevor Robinson, a free-agent rookie guard from Notre Dame that has shown promise playing center for the first time in his life during this spring and summer.

Robinson gets his first NFL start Thursday in Indianapolis and Alexander said, "We have to see how Trevor does and go from there."

But Alexander has been watching Faine for a long time now and has been impressed.

"He's a tremendous athlete and he's very smart," Alexander said. "He plays with a tremendous mean streak, which I love. Everyone you talk to goes out of their way to tell you what a true professional he really is."

Faine, the 21st pick in the draft that Palmer went No. 1, is going to have just a week to get the body and playbook ironed out, but he's highly-regarded for his on-field acumen and has served as a captain for the Saints and Bucs. A Notre Dame product, he battled the Ravens for three seasons as a member of the Browns before he was traded to the Saints. He played for the Saints in 2006 and 2007 before he signed with Tampa Bay in 2008.

He missed 12 games in 2009 and 2010, but missed only one last season when Tampa Bay finished 11th in the league in allowing sacks per pass.

And clearly Faine has the edge going into a Monday night opener.

"Trevor has done some great things for us and he's going to be playing in this league for a long time," Gruden said. "But he's been playing center for a week. Jeff's been playing it his whole life. If Jeff got winded, I would think Trevor could get in there for a couple of snaps and vice versa. We'll see how it goes."

Both Alexander and Gruden are thrilled they were able to get Faine, given how much they rely on Cook's mental gymnastics.

"We're lucky a guy like Jeff was still out there this late in the season," Alexander said.

It also gives the Bengals three first-rounders up front in Faine, Zeitler and right tackle Andre Smith.

Ironically, the Bengals signed Faine the year that former Bengals guard Eric Steinbach retired. Back in '03 the CW had the Browns drafting Steinbach at No. 21, in which case the Bengals would take Faine with the first pick in the second round. But it happened the other way around and each ended up with both clubs during their careers.

Faine is the second oldest player on offense. The oldest is backup tight end Donald Lee, who turns 32 Friday.

"It's good that he's played in this system," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "And to have a veteran with his wealth of experience."

They saw all those things when Faine worked out for the Bengals on Tuesday in a period he impressed them with his quickness and health. But they also realize there are issues. The thing that concerns Gruden the most is that he has yet to shake quarterback Andy Dalton's hand, never mind snap a football into it.

"He'll pick up the line calls. Obviously he played in this offense with my brother," Gruden said. "Coach Alexander has different line calls like all teams, but I'm not worried about him picking that up.

"What I am worried about is him having enough time to get used to Andy. It sounds simple. Getting the snap back to the quarterback. But that's the most important thing. We don't want balls on the ground. Can he step and snap and get into a rhythm with Andy? That's what we're going to have to make sure he can do."

But with just a week to prepare for Ngata and the Ravens without Cook's microchip, the Bengals feel like they called their best shot possible on Aug. 29.

"If there's one (center) that could get ready for a Monday night opener in about a week," Gruden said, "it's this guy."

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