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The Mouse that roared

Posted: 4:50 p.m.

Jim McNally, the man they call "Mouse," called it a giant career last week. Basically because he wanted to be the kid from Enola Avenue who went to the Bills' very first practice in 1960 instead of Buffalo's resident guru.

But he'll always be one of the most colorful and influential figures in Bengaldom as the coach of one of the greatest offensive lines in history and one of the innovators of a scheme that has become an NFL staple.

"It's been 20 years ago and they're still the best," McNally mused last week after his surprising retirement ended 28 seasons with four different NFL teams. "But I feel good about leaving now because I think the Bills are going to have the best line in football next year."

That's what McNally, 64, built in Cincinnati during the late 1980s with Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz and four guys picked in the seventh round and beyond: Left guard Bruce Reimers, center Bruce Kozerski, right guard Max Montoya, and right tackle Joe Walter.

"Jimmy was always looking for a way to make us better; he was never satisfied," Munoz said. "He always said when he got around people that he belonged back in the dark watching film."

While they dominated NFL rushing (from 1986 to 1990 the Bengals never finished below fifth and led the NFL twice), McNally became the composite of what the perfect NFL line coach should be during his 15 seasons with the Bengals.

If coaches emulated his zone blocking scheme and kick steps on pass protection, some also copied bits of his personality. Kind of a cross between Jerry Lewis' absent-minded professor and Doc Brown in Back to the Future.

Hillarious. Intense. Brilliant. Passionate. All football all the time. He was the first NFL Network and has a coaching tree of his own.

One time in the early '90s he grabbed from a reporter a questionnaire for players and read aloud, "Favorite Movie? The Graduate. That's a movie, right?"

Sure. Except it was 25 years old at the time. But that's McNally. The only film he cares about features stunts and loops. His impact is still felt here. Paul Alexander, who succeeded him as line coach and is now two years away from matching McNally's 15 seasons, was mesmerized by a McNally clinic performance while he was still in college. He even plucked Alexander out of the crowd for a demonstration.

"I think his personality is a way for him to be under the radar. He doesn't want to come off as arrogant or being a know-it-all," said Dave Lapham, the Bengals radio analyst. "He can poke fun at himself and others. He doesn't take himself too seriously, but when it comes to football and physiology, the guy is genius."

Lapham was on McNally's first NFL offensive line in 1980, the one on which Munoz was a rookie. Lapham was in his seventh season and some of the new stuff sounded blasphemous.

There was a drop step, which went against the holy tenant of not giving up ground. And crossing your feet, another heresy because of the potential loss of balance.

"But you gave up ground to make ground," Lapham said. "He made it easier to do things with those moves, like getting outside and reach blocking. A master technician."

As McNally tweaked and tucked his cutting-edge technique, the line grew into the best in the game. By 1994, with Walter and Kozerski the only ones left from the 1988 Super Bowl line, McNally moved on to Carolina, the Giants (where he got back to the Super Bowl), and finally his hometown of Buffalo.

"I'm back here with all my friends and family and it's been really great," McNally said. "I just want to be little Jimmy McNally from Kenmore West so I can just enjoy being with everybody. But it's hard to do that in this job."

It is also hard in pain. Early in the season he took a shot on the sidelines following a punt and broke three ribs, a bone in his back, and hurt his knee. He spent the last 13 games in the press box, which he didn't like, but even worse was the constant pain he had to endure during practice.

There are those that think once he heals up he'll resurface because he just can't be away.

"I certainly still have the passion and love for it," he said.

A big, 350-pound reason it was easy to leave the Bills is Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, the classic McNally project straight from the '80s. Peters was a college tight end, a free agent that had never been exposed to tackle play until McNally latched on to him in Buffalo. Now after just his fourth NFL season, Peters is on the verge of stardom.

"The great thing about it is that I was able to begin my career coaching Anthony, the greatest of all time," McNally said, "and I was able to end it with a guy like Jason Peters, who has the potential to be one of the great ones. He's not the athlete like Anthony, but he's quick and light on his feet and really something."

Munoz had to laugh about five years after his retirement when the Broncos won back to-back Super Bowls in the late '90s and offensive line coach Alex Gibbs became anointed as the innovator of zone blocking. Munoz had been doing it all 10 years before.

"I didn't invent zone blocking, but we and the Cleveland Browns did it back in the '80s and both teams had a lot of success," McNally said of his counterpart in Cleveland, Howard Mudd, the Colts line coach for this past decade.

McNally isn't shy to admit that the Bengals lifted the Browns' outside zone play they ran so well with Kevin Mack and married it in with their inside stuff for banger Pete Johnson. The zone scheme grew out of the search for an antidote of the rise of the 3-4 defense and its ability to penetrate and beat one-on-one matchups.

So McNally and Mudd ditched man-to-man play and went with a choreographed technique that needed all five men stepping and moving in concert. Watching the Colts run the ball in last year's Super Bowl and the Bengals with a healthy Rudi Johnson in some packages is proof the scheme changed the way NFL teams ran the football.

"It's all angles," Lapham said. "Jimmy Mac just had a great feel for it."

Although he never coached under Bengals founder Paul Brown, McNally spent a lot of time with him during the personnel process when Brown was the general manager and absorbed plenty. Paul and Mike Brown, then the assistant general manager, relied heavily on McNally's scouting efforts because of his enthusiasm and talent at finding rough diamonds.

"I always remember the way those guys approached a big decision and tried to take the emotion out of it," he said. "They'd go for a walk and PB would say, 'We're going to sleep on it.' "

A frequent scene at Riverfront Stadium and Spinney Field was McNally busting into their offices with tape of his newest find. Or, back when the media had constant access to the coaches' offices, he'd sprint past you into tight end coach Tiger Johnson's office raving about his latest idea on maximum pass protection.

"It's been a lot of fun. It's been great," said the kid now sounding like he was back on Enola Ave.

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