CINCINNATI — Takeo Spikes knows this place well. It’s hard to forget your childhood home, which is what Cincinnati is to Spikes as an NFL player.
But this place hardly looks the same as when Spikes last played here as a member of the Bengals. It’s not so much about the physical surroundings at Paul Brown Stadium but rather the vibe of the neighborhood. It’s upbeat.
"It’s the feel, talking with the guys, seeing how the guys walk, the coaches have changed," said Spikes. "Expectations are different."
When Spikes played linebacker for the Bengals from 1998-2002 there was a hope that the team would be competitive, maybe muster together seven or eight wins in a season. There was talent on the roster but the franchise lacked direction. There’s a difference between hope and expectation.
Spikes was back in Cincinnati on Thursday as part of the Sirius/XM NFL Radio training camp tour with partner Jeff Rickard. Spikes, 37, played 15 seasons in the league. He still looks ready to put on the pads and helmet even though this is the second year he’s watching training camps instead of practicing.
He likes what he’s seen and heard from these Bengals.
"Talking with a lot of the guys you can tell. To me, the sense that you get here is that a lot of the guys are pissed at the way last year ended," said Spikes. "And I haven’t even been digging into it. That’s the feel that I get just from being around. They’re out to prove a point, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. To me I see the entire mentality changing of what they do."
Spikes was 26 years old when he decided to sign with Buffalo as an unrestricted free agent after the 2002 season. He had been a first-round pick of the Bengals out of Auburn in 1998, the 13th overall player selected. He became the spokesman for some bad teams. He wasn’t used to losing, not in high school and not in college, and he didn’t take well to losing as a professional. Even after the Bengals hired Marvin Lewis, who brought a Super Bowl pedigree with him, to become their head coach and the voice of the franchise, Spikes wasn’t convinced to stay.
"I didn’t know Marvin. I told Marvin that then," said Spikes. "Yeah, I know you won the Super Bowl in Baltimore, which is cool, but I just knew Mike Brown and I felt that Mike was going to run it, which he has, but what I did not know was that in order to relinquish some control we have to have a trust factor. I give Marvin a lot of credit for that because he came in and built that trust factor up with Mike.
"Even back starting in ’05 he gave a little control and more, more and more so when I look at the roster, the roster is not built with what Mel Kiper says, not with what Mike Mayock says, it’s built with football players that I’ve seen on tape. That’s what I like about this roster. It’s a bunch of players on this tape that’s impressive."
Spikes is impressed with linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who plays the same outside position as Spikes did. The ability on the field Burfict has shown in his first two seasons, said Spikes, leads to his ability to be a team leader.
"I think before you even open your mouth you have to be able to play. That’s the biggest credibility that you can have," said Spikes. "With Vontaze I think he has proven he can play. We all know the troubles that he went through early but now it’s him staying straight, having accountability not only to the coaches but to his teammates because they’re watching him every day. His accountability and the way that he approaches the game on a consistent basis, every day, every day, that will be his biggest asset going forward."
The coaching staff Lewis has built is also a strength of the team, said Spikes. He’s a big fan of Hue Jackson as offensive coordinator. He’s believes in defensive backs coaches Mark Carrier and Vance Joseph, who he thinks will be a defensive coordinator in the league within the next three years.
They all have a similar trait.
"A coach can always tell me what I did after I knew I did it wrong. I don’t need you to tell me that. Give me some insight," said Spikes. "That’s the value of having a teacher, and they’ve done a great job with doing that."
Spikes never played in a postseason game in his career; ironic given how he left the Bengals in search of playing for a winning franchise. But there is no bitterness or regret over how the two sides split.
"I’ve always been a Bengal at heart. Always. It’s a part of me," said Spikes. "It’s where it started out."