CINCINNATI — The mental part of a physical injury is its unseen difficulty. For an athlete, the sudden sense of loss whether that loss is for a mere moment, a few weeks, or a season, is a reality they have to overcome as well as going through the body’s rehab.
There were 10 players on the Bengals’ injured reserve list last January when San Diego came to town for an AFC wildcard playoff game. The list included rookies who didn’t get a chance to play anything more than a preseason game, players in the first few seasons of a career who are trying to make a name for themselves, the team’s stars and veterans who realize you can’t play forever.
"Playing this game, period, you have to be mentally strong and take it for what it is," said defensive end Robert Geathers, who has been a Bengal longer than any other current Bengal. "It is part of the game. You can’t get beat mentally. That’s how some guys make it and some guys end up out of the league. They get down on themselves and don’t come back as strong as they need to be."
Geathers was one of those 10 who had to watch from the sidelines as the Bengals lost a third straight first-round playoff game, this one a little more painful because it was at home. All 10 players are back on the roster this offseason, including the eight who were missing from the defensive side of the ball. Six of the players — Geathers, safety Taylor Mays, linebackers Brandon Joiner, Sean Porter and Emmanuel Lamur and defensive tackle Larry Black — have been cleared to resume full participation during the offseason workouts, including the team’s minicamp that concluded Thursday.
Punter Kevin Huber, offensive lineman Clint Boling, cornerback Leon Hall and All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins are still working their way back to the practice field, hopeful of being ready to go when training camp starts in six weeks.
Geathers was a fourth-round draft pick in 2004, then an underclassman from the University of Georgia who decided to enter the NFL at the age of 20. He won’t turn 31 until August but after 10 seasons in the league he understands he’s closer to having played his last down in the NFL than his first. He suffered an elbow injury against Pittsburgh in a Week 2 win on Monday Night Football last season. Geathers had played fewer than 14 games in just one of his previous nine seasons and made 108 starts out of the 140 games he’s played for the Bengals, including postseason.
He’s not a flashy player but is one coaches want around because he plays within the system and is a good leader on and off the field.
"I’ve never missed that much time but the experience of seeing different situations helped give me the mindset that I need to have to get back and for the organization to believe that I can get back," said Geathers. "One of the positives is that it’s let my body heal in other areas. I feel stronger. I’ve got my legs under me. Whenever you get something taken away from you, you realize how much it means to you. Missing that much time, I’m hungry to be back out there. I’ve got that drive to play."
Despite missing as many players to injury as the defense lost last season, the Bengals still finished up ranked third in the league in yards allowed and fifth in points allowed. It proved that there is good depth on the roster. It also has them pondering how good they really can be on defense if they have their frontline players like Atkins and Hall healthy for a full season.
Taylor Mays has always been a safety but when the injuries started hitting hard at linebacker early in the season the Bengals moved him into a hybrid linebacker/safety position where he was performing well. Then, in the eighth game of the season, in a 49-9 blowout win against the New York Jets on Oct. 27, Mays suffered a dislocated shoulder.
"The hardest thing is to come to the conclusion that you have to sit out the rest of the year. It’s a tough reality to come to because you’re so busy every day and then you have a lot more relaxed schedule," said Mays, who is entering his fifth season in the league. "It’s one of those things where I feel I owe so much to the team, the defense, my teammates. It motivates you to fight back hard so that you can make an impact."
How quickly a player deals with that reality of his situation factors into how well he can come back after the rehab process.
Lamur was going to be a big part of the defensive plans, especially in nickel packages. He might have been undrafted out of Kansas State in 2012 but he earned his way into starting the playoff game at Houston that season as the SAM linebacker. He had a strong training camp and preseason last year but a shoulder injury against Indianapolis in the final preseason game ended his season. He has been full-go this offseason.
"Words can’t explain the way I feel being back with the guys," said Lamur. "I’m taking every rep serious like it’s a game. Like last season, anything can happen. It happened to me."
Lamur, Mays, Geathers and the other injured players would sit in on meetings throughout each week but while their teammates were practicing, they were going through their various stages of rehab. On game day, they watched from the sideline.
"I saw things from a different perspective, watching the game from the field," said Lamur. "It helped me understand the game and get a better feel for the game and the position."
That kind of situation can lead to thoughts of what could have been. Or it can lead to thoughts of what can be.
"We lose our best player, on paper, in Geno and we still played really, really well. I think that’s just a testament to the players we have and the coaching we have," said Mays. "Most teams can’t have that and then continue to play at the same level. We want to show what we can do with everybody. This is a team that is hungry."