Spring in the step

Domata Peko

Now it is starting to look a little like the springs we used to know around here.

Former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton's eighth annual Bowling for Charity takes place Saturday from 11-2 at the Super Bowl in Erlanger, Ky., and the Bengals take their first steps of the NFL's run to the Super Bowl the next two weeks in voluntary practices from Monday through Thursday.

According to The Cincinnati Enquirer, the Bengals are going against the grain of some NFL teams and opening up the Tuesday sessions to the media for the last hour of practice. The Enquirer quoted an email from defensive tackle Domata Peko that read, "This is a two-week minicamp designed to build chemistry, cohesiveness, review the defensive playbook and to work on our strength and conditioning."

What that says about a new offensive playbook that has yet to be introduced to the club by new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden remains to be seen. But with Peko and left tackle Andrew Whitworth shepherding their team through this minefield of an offseason, what it says is the class of 2006 has officially grown up to seize a locker room in transition.

Thornton, who has watched Peko grow into the leadership role along the defensive front, thinks Peko and Whitworth are the obvious leaders for the voluntaries that are taking the place of the OTAs at Paul Brown Stadium that would have been held the next two weeks if not for the lockout. While Whitworth and Peko organize the workouts, the owners and players are back at the table with Friday's court date in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals testing the lockout, a shutdown of the business that prevents any coaches and club employees from having contact with players.

With middle linebacker Dhani Jones's future up in the air, Thornton sees a void that must be filled. Peko was voted a defensive captain last year along with Jones, but Jones has been the designated coach on the field since his arrival in 2007.

"Not knowing if Dhani's coming back, they need a voice defensively and Domata's been around a long time and been a hard-working guy," Thornton said. "He's a playful guy, super nice, and the thing about the Samoans is they are just nice people. They'll do anything for you. He's at that age where it's his time."

Peko is prepared for the role, grooming himself to be a leader from day one, literally. Even when lockering between Thornton and defensive lineman Bryan Robinson once he arrived via the fourth round in the '06 draft, Peko talked openly about sitting back and observing the two veterans work on and off the field. Early in his career, he could be seen sitting in front of his locker listening to the answers Thornton and Robinson gave whenever the media came around.

"He was a good rookie; he embraced the veterans," Thornton said. "He asked a lot of questions. He didn't mind going out and getting the breakfasts. He's been there. You've got young guys on the line that are going to have the numbers like (Carlos) Dunlap and Michael (Johnson), but you need solid voice guys like Domata."

Whitworth, a second-round pick in '06, is in a natural leadership role as he heads into his third season as the club's player rep replacing wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh after 2008. Before that season, 12-year right tackle Willie Anderson departed, beginning a chemistry transplant on the offensive side that looks to be culminating this year with the drafting of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green. Thornton, thinking back to quarterback Carson Palmer's development, thinks Dalton is in good shape with Whitworth and right guard Bobbie Williams, voted an offensive captain last year along with Palmer.

"Carson became a leader, but not right away when he started playing," Thornton said. "Jon Kitna was still a leader in the locker room and (center) Richie Braham was telling him what to do up front and there was Willie and Bobbie. So I think it's good to have a veteran offensive line with a young quarterback. Dalton is going to be worried about doing his own thing and Whit and Bobbie can tell him what to do in the huddle."

Once he found out about the voluntary OTAs, Anderson thought about reaching out to Whitworth and wondered if the line might need an extra pair of eyes.

"Who's going to tell Whit and Bobbie if they take a wrong step?" Anderson asked. "Who's teaching the playbook? I think it's a good thing from the standpoint that the veterans can talk about how (offensive line coach) Paul Alexander teaches it and hopefully the young guys can see what it takes to play in the NFL watching Whitworth and Bobbie. But from what I see on the highlights from these workouts around the league, the only thing you see are the quarterbacks throwing to receivers. Who is running the real football guys part? With the big guys from a technical standpoint?"

Anderson's not even sure he would have gone to the workouts if he was still playing because he thinks it would put more heat on the owners to get a deal if players made themselves scarce.

"They know we're creatures of habit and this is the time of year we begin to want to get out there and play again," he said.

Thornton figures he would have been one of the guys organizing the workouts if he was still active and that it will be a positive, even if it's more of an intangible one. Clearly, he says, these practices aren't going to be the same without coaches.

Or even helmets.

"It's good for camaraderie and getting some chemistry," Thornton said. "The guys can sit around and talk about the playbook and do some studying that way. It's the same thing as OTAs. But the big thing is they're not wearing helmets. The one thing about the OTAs is it allowed players to learn at a non-physical pace. Asking a guy to learn while he's getting hit in the mouth is tough. You're not going to have defensive backs all over receivers. You have OTAs, a minicamp, and then you go right into training camp. A guy catches the ball over the middle, he's not even thinking about it. Now he's going to be thinking about it. It's going to be tough on the young guys. The older guys, it almost doesn't matter. It's like they didn't even really care about OTAs, but they really help the younger players."

Thornton's event may get a little more juice with more players now coming into town this weekend for the workouts, but he had already planned on not many players being around because of the lockout and invited a good number of former Bengals, such as Louis Breeden, David Fulcher, James Brooks and Doug Pelfrey. Thornton sold out all 32 lanes, picking up the last few himself and donating them to groups of underprivileged children.

"We may have some other guys coming through if they can," Thornton said.

The newlywed Johnathan Joseph is in town and has told Thornton he may stop by. Jones, who has had a whirlwind offseason with the publication of a book and appearance on the Jay Leno Show, also might do the same. With the status of both players cloudy, they may not be at the workouts. But wide receiver Jerome Simpson, who according to media and Twitter accounts has been a stalwart at various workouts around Cincinnati, figures to be both bowling and practicing. A visit from the big man may also be in the offing.

"Marvin has his coaching clinic this weekend, but he's going to try and break away if he can," Thornton said of Lewis' event at PBS for coaches of all levels. "He's always been great at supporting this event."

Lewis is one guy that definitely won't be at the voluntaries. But it is starting to look and sound a little like spring around here again.  

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