Up Close Look At Bengals' Socially Distant Training Camp

Vonn Bell: one of the Bengals' new leaders.
Vonn Bell: one of the Bengals' new leaders.

Safety Vonn Bell, one of the Bengals' new feisty defensive leaders, has a corner on their equally new socially-distanced locker room. Make that locker rooms.

Bell reports with the rest of the veterans Tuesday to unofficially open the official start of training camp with a Covid-19 test. Whoever passes the test Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday can go into Paul Brown Stadium Sunday for a physical.

Thanks, probably to his old buddy at Ohio State, Bengals equipment aficionado Sam Staley, when Bell is able to get in he'll have a corner locker at the entrance of what is now the main locker room of four rooms the players are using.

"Take it a day at a time. Enjoy the process. Enjoy the success. It's going to be what we're trying to create. Put our hard hats on every day and go to work," Bell said. "I believe guys across the room have to make a plan. You have to be on the same page … You have to come together not only on the field, but off the field, in a brotherhood … Communication."

Bell may be only 25, but he's been around high-octane football his entire life. After a heady stint with the Buckeyes, he's already played in five NFL playoff games and he's seen enough to quickly sum up the complexities of revamping the mentality of an NFL defense during a pandemic.

It's a game based on the tightest of relationships, but the virus has forced director of security Mark Herren and director of operations Jeff Brickner to make sure the Bengals don't get too close.

Which defies how they have started all 52 of their previous training camps (and all those T-Shirt camp slogans) before this very unique one. Remember, this is the time of the year the Bengals actually brought in extra lockers and put them in the middle of the locker room to accommodate the 90-man roster.

Now, in order to enhance social distancing, the Bengals are spreading themselves thin for what figures to be a total of 80 players.

Welcome to the 2020 Orange and Black training camp. You haven't seen anything like it. And hardly anybody will since no fans are allowed and media availability is limited.

In Bell's corner of the locker room, there are about only a dozen lockers and four name plates: Bell, cornerback Darius Phillips, safety Brandon Wilson and cornerback William Jackson III. Then down the next row there are six players for 15 spaces. Wide receiver A.J. Green and safety Shawn Williams are on the end while wide receivers John Ross and Alex Erickson and running backs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard are in between.

And down the next row rookie quarterback Joe Burrow gets a corner locker, too, the same one that belonged to Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton. Except now there's an empty locker between him and wide receiver Tyler Boyd.

The Bengals are trying to make sure not to locker one position group all together in an effort to prevent one position from getting decimated. And to go with the four locker rooms are two training rooms. Dividing the training tables are Plexiglas. The sauna is closed. The players' lounge is shuttered. The equipment room is locked.

There is only one players' entrance into the stadium, where they are handed tracking chips that they hand back in at the end of the day so movement in the building can be monitored daily in an effort to prevent spread.

There are two meal rooms. Not more than three can sit at a table, some tables only seat two. The food is still cooked at PBS, but it's all grab and go, each item put in a separate box. No soda fountain. No salad bar. No buffets. No trays. Just shopping bags.

"The whole idea is to expand the room that we do have so they are socially separated," Brickner said Monday. "The more room, the better. And I think early on there are going to be more virtual meetings to see how it goes."

Herren says some teams are going to meet outside and watch what amounts to movie screens. It doesn't sound like head coach Zac Taylor is headed that way, but eventually they think they can use their two big auditoriums to meet. They're big enough, they think, to socially distance 40 players, a room for each side of the ball.

The space that probably has undergone the biggest change is strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese's weight room. The Bengals turned it into two rooms by moving equipment into the adjoining multi-purpose gym, spreading out the work stations to an acceptable social distance.

But the way a new leader like Bell sees it, walls are easy to bring down. It may need to happen off the field and it will have to be done within guidelines that, as reported by profootballtalk.com, prohibits players from indoor night clubs, indoor bars, indoor house parties (with 15 or more people), indoor concerts, professional sporting events, or indoor church services that allow attendance above 25 percent of capacity.

But Bell says it can be done.

"Maybe take half the defensive line and the safeties. Or the quarterbacks and the wide receivers," Bell said. "Mix it up. That's how you get acquainted. You just have to try and come up with a solution. Think out of the box."

Bell had a good start Monday. He hooked up with some of the guys out on a field in Sycamore to go through some conditioning. It turned into a veritable Buckeyes' reunion. In the group were Burrow and right end Sam Hubbard, two guys he knew in Columbus.

"When Sam got there they didn't know what to do with him, where to play," Bell said. "He came into the safety room. Then they put him at tight end. Then they moved him to D-end. Freakish athlete. Look at him now."

Look at Bell now. The old New Orleans Saint is looking to lead a defensive revival in the toughest of times.

"America needs something like this to keep us together. Football brings everybody together. Cultures, races," Bell said. "But we also have to be sensitive with guys that have family and loved ones with underlying conditions. It's a balance between both. You have to take the smartest way. Social distance as much as you can. Go to the grocery store. Stops like that. Essential. If you're going somewhere, get in, get out. Go early when there's not a crowd. Just be mindful of what's going on around you."

Even in this most distance of camps, he can still see the Bengals coming together.

"You can still talk with a mask on," Bell said.

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