CINCINNATI — Nick Cosgray has done about all he can for Leon Hall these last nine months. Cosgray heads up the Bengals physical rehabilitation program and Hall has been one of his prized projects.
Hall was no longer under Cosgray’s eye when training camp practices began Thursday. He was back on the field, taking on the challenges of his wide receiver teammates, stopping, cutting, pushing forward just as he has been planning to do since tearing his right Achilles tendon last Oct. 20 in Detroit.
It was the second torn Achilles for Hall in three years; he ruptured his left one in the middle of the 2011 season. He returned in 2012 to have one of his best seasons, including interception returns for touchdowns in a playoff-clinching win at Pittsburgh and a playoff loss at Houston.
Hall is fully confident he can return to form in 2014.
"I guess you could say I reached my goal but that was just part of it. I’m still not all the way back yet," said Hall. "Doing the drills on the side with Nick is a little different than going against (Mohamed) Sanu or A.J. (Green) or Marvin (Jones) or somebody like that, so it should be fun."
Hall came through practice just fine, even getting tested on a couple of deep routes against Green.
"I got a blister on my toe, or on my heel, actually, but other than that I’m good," said Hall after practice. "I felt good. There’s no pain. It felt strong. Footwork was not very good but that’s going to come in a few days, a week or so."
Hall was one of 10 Bengals who ended last season on injured reserve, including eight players from the defense. The loss of Hall and All-Pro Geno Atkins hurt the most. Even though the defense finished ranked third in the NFL in yards allowed and tied for fifth in points allowed, you don’t lose two top-tier players like them and not feel the effects.
"When you lose a guy of his caliber, it’s not just he does the field but it’s his leadership off the field. It hurts," said Green. "Leon got me to this level. I remember coming in as a rookie, even before I got drafted and working out at API and seeing Leon come in and they way he works. Then I got drafted by them and working with him my rookie training camp, he definitely made me better."
Hall was a first-round pick in 2007. He is one of six first-round picks the Bengals have in their defensive backfield. When it comes to tenure with the Bengals only defensive end Robert Geathers, left tackle Andrew Whitworth and defensive tackle Domata Peko have been wearing stripes longer than Hall.
"Leon, he works hard at everything he does. If you can have a poster-child for a coach’s guy, that’s him," said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. "He’ll do whatever he has to do. He spent the whole offseason getting that thing back to go. I’m excited to see him back on the field."
Guenther’s defense is not going to radically change from what former coordinator Mike Zimmer built over the past six seasons. One of the bases of that defense is the ability of defensive backs to play man coverages. Hall has done that as well as any cornerback the Bengals have had in this most recent run of success whether he’s played on the outside, inside or in the slot. He helped minimize Green Bay’s Randall Cobb (five catches, 54 yards) in a Week 3 win against the Packers after Cobb had totaled 16 catches for 236 yards and two touchdowns in the first two games of the season.
Hall has 23 interceptions in his career, which ranks him fifth in franchise history. He is two behind Lemar Parrish in fourth place. He’s also been credited with breaking up 112 passes in his 92 games.
At age 29, it would be natural for any athlete who has been through the rigors of seven NFL seasons to begin to slow down but the rehab process of the Achilles may actually help Hall.
"He’s done it better this time than last time," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "His speed became better last time, which is really something. I thought he played faster in 2012 than he did before. I think that’s what excites him about this."
It could be easy to take for granted the rehab process, that a player can automatically be expected to return as good or even better in some manner than before an injury. Just because he did it once doesn’t mean he’s going to do it again. Having gone through the process with one Achilles previously gave Hall the confidence he could make it back a second time.
He realized it was not a guarantee. There were a lot of early mornings meeting Cosgray with a lot of rehab exercises, a lot of calf raises.
"I’d probably have a super set of 300," said Hall. "You can’t take it for granted. That’s why I tried to stay on top of it, I tried to stay pretty busy this offseason. I think that helped as far as I didn’t have a lot of down time to think about the negative effects of the Achilles injury, of coming back from two Achilles. I didn’t have a lot of time to just sit and think about it too much."
Now Hall can concentrate on the daily grind of practice and the battles with wide receivers.
"It means a lot," said Hall. "That’s some of the worst things about it, you see them out on the fields, you see them in OTAs working hard and you want to be out there with your guys going through those ups and downs as a team, building that togetherness and camaraderie. That’s the hardest part about it. When you sit on the sideline it’s never any fun. Sometimes you’re on the field and you’re so tired you think I wish I was on the sideline but once you’re really on the sideline it’s not fun at all."