There are reminders everywhere. On TV watching games. At work a few lockers down. Even on the back of Bengals safety
Games like the one the 8-6 Bengals play Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-WLW-700) against the 7-7 Cardinals just don’t come around all that often. A win and your team heads into the last week of the season with a shot at the playoffs.
“It’s hard,” Crocker mused after Wednesday’s practice. “It’s hard in the NFL to go to the playoffs. You see guys around this league still trying to get one. Still trying to get a ring.”
How hard? The guy a few lockers down from Crocker, cornerback Nate Clements, hasn’t been to the playoffs during his 11 seasons in the NFL and he’s not even on the list of the five active players with the most games played without ever playing in a postseason game.
The leader is former Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes now with the Chargers playing in his 201st game this past Sunday. The two specialists from the Bills, kicker Rian Lindell and punter Brian Moorman, are at 180 and 174, respectively.
And there are two Lions offensive linemen who hope their long national nightmare is over with left tackle Jeff Backus (174) and center Dominic Raiola (170) in the hunt in the NFC.
Clements, who played in Buffalo and San Francisco before signing here at the start of training camp, is ready for his 164th game and taking it like he took the other 163.
“Haven’t thought about it," Clements said. “I mean, I’ve thought about it before now, but now I’m just focused on one day at a time. Just chipping away and at the end of the season see where we are.”
Crocker ended a skein of playing seven seasons in the NFL before he played on a winning team for the Bengals 2009 AFC North champs. Left tackle
“We go through the locker room to talk about it; how hard it is to get to this position,” Whitworth said. “There are a lot of guys who played some very good football and have become leaders for their teams and just never had the opportunity to play in the playoffs.”
That’s what Crocker thought the other night when he watched Spikes play against the Ravens and it got him to thinking about an old friend of his.
“I was talking with somebody and we were thinking, just imagine being in the Super Bowl and watching that clock strike double zero,” Crocker said. “You can’t describe those feelings. I have a good friend, Dre Bly, and his rookie year, ’99, The Greatest Show on Turf, the St. Louis Rams, Kurt Warner playing when Trent Green got hurt. So many things they couldn’t have scripted, but it turned out they had a great team. You just don’t know. Each year is different.”
Just look at Clements’s old team, the 49ers. Last year he was on a sub-.500 team and now the Niners have a new coach that cleaned house and they’ve already clinched the NFC West. But he has no what-ifs.
“There are a lot of guys on that team I’m good friends with and we still keep in touch,” Clements said. “I’m glad for those guys.”
Clements, who turned 32 earlier this month the day after he missed his only game of the season against the Texans with a pulled hamstring, has moved on and is enjoying this playoff run. Sunday was vintage Clements with a couple of third-and-short stops on the run along with his first sack of the season off a blitz.
“My hammy feels real good. I’ve been getting 24-7 treatment,” Clements said. “I’m excited. I’m happy to be here. I think I’ve fit in great here.”
The Bengals would agree. He came up with a batch of big plays late that bailed them out of several close games early on and now Clements and his teammates are trying to figure out how to get back to that October mindset when the Bengals went 4-0 with two of the wins coming in the fourth quarter and the other two being sealed in the final period.
“The more opportunities you get the better chance you've got of catching a streak,” Whitworth said. “That's why you see these teams that just survive and get in the playoffs and know from there all they have to do is put together a streak of good games. We have had a five-game winning streak once this year. You can do that from here on out you are sitting in the Super Bowl.”
Crocker, now 31 and in his ninth season, says the most frustrating part of not being on a winner was the constant turnover. He never had the same teammates and the same defensive coordinator until he got to Cincinnati, and now he says it’s a lot more fun and enjoyable. The payoffs are big. But he won’t let it define him.
“You look back and how many times did you have a chance? How many times did you go to the playoffs” Crocker asked. “Can you really measure your career by that because, hell, Dan Marino never (won a Super Bowl)? I can think of a lot of elite quarterbacks that never won a Super Bowl but they’re still great players.
“At the end of the day, what you want for the most is for other players to respect your craft. What you’ve done so that guys take notice of your work. What you’ve done on the field."
But Crocker also admits, it comes down to the postseason. “I really do cherish (Saturday),” he said, because he’s thinking of those double zeroes.
“I have a strong passion for the game," Clements said. “But you have to understand that we’re not playing just to get to the playoffs, we’re playing for a Super Bowl. I only look at it in terms of I play because I want to reach the ultimate goal.”
So he prepares for the 164th game like the other 163. He’s using his knowledge of the Cardinals to craft his plan (“A lot of what they do is based on timing; you have to disrupt their timing,” he says) and he knows he played Cardinals quarterback John Skelton in last year’s finale when he was a rookie and Clements has taken note of his mobility.
“That's the goal, the thing is, especially having a young football team to keep reminding them, they haven't been in this situation a lot,” Whitworth said. “This opportunity doesn't always come by. You got an opportunity to go make the playoffs, we've got to execute and go play our best.”