The Cincinnati Bengals are a virtual lock to win the AFC North with a commanding three-game lead and the tiebreaker advantage over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens with only four games to play. The reasons for the Bengals' success have been covered -- the resurgence of castaway Cedric Benson; the continued improvement of the defense under coordinator Mike Zimmer; the best cornerback tandem in the NFL in Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph; and Carson Palmer's clutch performances late in games.
What isn't as apparent is the Bengals' secret weapon: their practice squad. You probably know the Bengals offensive line has been outstanding this season, a surprise given that right guard Bobbie Williams was the only starter returning to the same position he had played in 2008. What you didn't know is that three of the linemen who have started at least five games up front for the Bengals are veterans of the practice squad, including two who have spent multiple seasons on what used to be referred to as the taxi squad. Center Kyle Cook, left guard Nate Livings and right tackle Dennis Roland have earned their playing time the hard way and they play like it.
Cook has emerged as one of the more physical centers in the league in only his first season as a starter. He spent the 2007 season on the practice squad and much of the 2008 season on injured reserve after hurting his foot. He's been as big a factor as any in the Bengals success up front in 2009.
Livings, who has split starts with Evan Mathis at left guard after getting hurt earlier in the season, was on Cincy's practice squad for the entire 2006 season and most of the 2007 and 2008 seasons before getting bumped up to the active roster for short stints at the end of both of those campaigns. Roland, meanwhile, has started eight games at right tackle for the Bengals and gotten significant playing time in many others as an extra tight end. He is a multi-year practice squadder as well, having spent 2006-08 working on the scout team of both the Tampa Bay Bucs and Bengals.
The Bengals success up front is due in large part to their use of a part of NFL teams that many organizations squander. Below are some of the dos and don'ts as it relates to the use of practice squads in the NFL:
• Practice squad spots are valuable commodities. Many teams in the NFL do not realize this. Clearly the Bengals are not one of them. With the number of injuries during a season and the demands placed on relatively small 53-man rosters, the practice squad is the only place a young player truly can be developed. In fact, given there is no longer an NFL developmental league like NFL Europe, the practice squad is the be-all end-all when it comes to grooming a young talent who isn't yet ready for the big time.
• It is all about how you develop players on your practice squad. The Bengals clearly recognize that there are certain positions, the offensive line being chief among them, where players typically need extra seasoning and technique work before they are ready to play on Sundays. Assistant offensive line coach Bob Surace actually grades the practice tape of his practice squad offensive linemen as they work on the demo team during the week. That is unheard of, but it gives the players a chance to see what they need to improve while allowing the coaches to chart their progress and know when they are ready to play.
• You can't be afraid to play them. And Bengals veteran offensive line coach Paul Alexander clearly isn't. There are many coaches and front office personnel who would attach a certain stigma to a player who has spent a season on the practice squad, let alone more than one. Not Alexander. He has shown a willingness to play those players once they are ready, and his patience has been richly rewarded this season. The main benefit is the coaches can be sure the player is well-versed in their preferred techniques, having been in the building and learning for years. A side benefit is that former practice squad players will never take their playing time for granted; Cook and Livings, in particular, play extremely hard.
• What not to do. Some teams treat the practice squad spots almost as throwaways and simply take the best guy in training camp at a certain position where they desire an extra practice body during the week. A wide receiver here, a linebacker there, etc. That is incredibly short-sighted. Practice squad players get $5,200 a week and do everything that the members of the active roster do up until noon on Saturday, as they do not travel with the team for away games or stay in the team hotel on Saturday night for home games.
As an example, I once played in Buffalo with a practice squad offensive lineman named Jasen Esposito. He was a solid prospect whom the Bills kept on the practice squad for the entire 2004 and 2005 seasons before declining to offer him a contract to be a part of their offseason program heading into the 2006 campaign. Are you kidding me? The Bills invested two years of time, money, resources, and energy into a young prospect like Esposito, yet he wasn't even good enough by that point in their opinion to be one of the 15 offensive linemen they brought to training camp the following season? If he really wasn't worthy of coming to training camp the next year, that is a terrible indictment of their ability to develop players and a clear mis-use of the practice squad.
It is a mistake that the soon-to-be AFC North division champs would never make. For a team with a reputation of doing things the wrong way, the Bengals sure know what they are doing when it comes to their practice squad. They are being rewarded for their patience and development in a major way this season.