Right guard Kevin Zeitler has returned refreshed and re-tooled.
On a postcard summer day at the Paul Brown Stadium practice fields Friday (sunny and 78 degrees), the offensive line wrote a note to Bengaldom to let it know that despite all the offseason gnashing of teeth, things are just fine early on, thank you.
Yes, the anchor, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, is still on the sidelines, but his tweaked calf is a day closer to being ready. And, besides, the new backup tackle, Marshall Newhouse, looked as poised as his 31 NFL starts. The right tackle, Andre Smith, looks as fit and focused as he's ever been in his six seasons in Cincinnati. A day after his lightning return from ACL surgery, left guard Clint Boling got the day off but was replaced by Mike Pollak, a seven-year veteran coming back from his own off-season knee issue following a solid year he earned another contract. New center Russell Bodine, a fourth-rounder, looks more and more like the Opening Day starter because if you don't notice a rookie center in a no huddle offense, he's doing OK.
This is not the offensive line that struggled against San Diego and the populace may feel a bit better knowing that Dave Lapham is signing the card. Lapham, the Bengals solid 10-year offensive linemen before the next generation got to know him for the last 29 years as the excitable and insightful radio analyst, likes the way it has started.
"The only concern to me is the injuries, but I don't think any of them are debilitating," Lapham said. "I think they look good. I've been impressed with Bodine. He looks good in space and gets to the second level well. He's definitely got the skill set and he'll continue to improve. Andre is in as good as shape as I've ever seen him. Newhouse has good feet. At left guard if you're an offensive line coach, you can go with (Boling or Pollak) and feel good about it. They've got guys that can play multiple positions. They've got depth."
And then there is right guard Kevin Zeitler. If there is a face of this offensive line heading into training camp, it is this guy. He has quietly spent the offseason re-tooling and regenerating and has returned impressive and refreshed. Slimmed down 10 pounds to 315, looking as expansive as a prairie from his native Wisconsin in the upper body, and sleeping easier now that his sleep apnea has been diagnosed, Zeitler has some plans.
"He's a machine. Hardest working guy I've ever coached," said Paul Alexander after the second practice of his 20th season coaching the Bengals offensive line. "He's the Energizer Bunny. He's always in the weight room early; he's always hustling and finishing in practice. He's in range to have a top, top season. The third season is huge for NFL offensive linemen."
It's not like Zeitler fell off the end of the world last season. Yes, ProFootballFocus.com, which rated him the 12th best guard after his rookie season in 2012, pegged him 27th last year out of 81. And he did give up the overtime safety in Miami when he got beat on a game and he was never really right for the last three games after he missed four games with a painful foot injury. But he's a beast on the run, is getting better in pass protection, is as conscientious as the day is long, and Alexander believes his production has made him "a top guard." Plus, he's his own worst critic, which Alexander would like to see him tone down. He's so conscientious that he can overthink it sometimes.
"He's very demanding of himself," Alexander said. "He has to overcome that sometimes. At some point you have to accept the margin of error and be realistic."
Zeitler gets it. Bright and intense, he says, "I see things on every play that I that could be that much better. I just want to make more of an impact, make the right corrections, and be more of an impact guard."
Alexander says the third year is key for so many other positions, too. Because the rookie year is such a whirlwind with all their pro workouts and the second year is on such a different schedule, he theorizes they don't get into a routine until that second offseason. And you'd have to say Zeitler killed his routine this offseason.
When he went back to Wisconsin, he lifted twice a day with football specifics in the morning and more lifting later in the day with his wife at what he jokingly calls "a regular people's gym." You can say that kind of stuff when lifting is a hobby. He kept the same routine when the spring workouts started and his meetings with Jim Riggs at the same Cincinnati gym where former Bengals right end Michael Johnson famously re-built his body were effective.
"It's a fabulous program and the nutrition part of it is huge," Zeitler said. "I think that's really going to help me with my recovery after working out so hard."
But the moderate sleep apnea diagnosis from the offseason may turn out to be the biggest lift for him. It's a disorder where there are pauses in breathing throughout the night and it's not exactly a surprise to him because his father has it. Zeitler has ordered the machine that shoots oxygen into his mouth during the night, but he's already sleeping much better. Halfway through the season he stared getting less than five hours of sleep a night.
"It was a crazy year. I was just not comfortable. I couldn't tell you why. I don't know if it was the injuries or what," Zeitler said. "It's just like the diet. It's going to help me recover and make me sharper as well. I was like, 'I'm not sleeping anyway, so the sleep I do get it may as well be quality sleep.' But I've been sleeping a lot longer now and I feel much better."
There hasn't been a lot of time to worry about the little things. Not with a rookie center and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's no-huddle-no-nonsense offense. Zeitler seems quite relaxed in the middle of things.
"I just like the way Hue is running it. He's holding everyone accountable," Zeitler said. "Bodine is doing a good job with the calls. He's making everyone talk and communicate with each other, which is a good thing. And he's getting the job done. That's all that matters."
Not bad for the first postcard of summer.