Broach the subject of Vonn Bell’s greatest impact in Cincinnati with almost any Bengals fan, and it will trigger something literal: his jarring, fumble-forcing hit against Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on Monday Night Football late in the lost 2020 season.
It endowed the veteran safety with near cult hero status in his first season with the Bengals, and it still stands as arguably the most iconic moment in the franchise rebuild, a catalyst to the magic that followed in 2021.
Inside the walls of Paul Brown Stadium, that hit still rolls through memory banks with full appreciation for what it meant in the moment and what it sparked. But it is not front of mind when the conversation turns toward Bell’s biggest impact. Instead, it’s the 6 a.m. clanging of weights, the off-day meetings ring-leading, the practice peacemaking, the gentle — and occasionally not-so-gentle — suggesting and correcting.
In a word: leadership.
“He’s one of the best leaders I’ve been around,” said senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner, who is in his 26th NFL season.
“One thing you can count on is Vonn’s always going to be there,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “There’s never been a day where that’s not been the case. And over time, you garner a lot of respect for people who do that.”
.@Vonn knocks it out from Pittsburgh TikTok star.
WATCH on ESPN pic.twitter.com/n4BNZHcJ0J
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) December 22, 2020
The loudest statement about Bell’s leadership came in the quietest of manners when enough of his teammates wrote down his name to make him a captain in his first season with the Bengals. As remarkably rare as that is on the surface, remember, too, it was the start of COVID-19, when the only time the players spent together was for a couple of hours a day on the practice field. All the meetings were virtual, and there was no hanging out and getting to know each other in the locker room.
Adding even more volume to the vote was that Bell never received the honor during his four seasons with the Saints, nor was ever a captain at Ohio State.
“He should have been,” said cornerback Eli Apple, who was Bell’s teammate at both OSU and in New Orleans. “I’ve always looked at him as a leader, somebody that everybody respects and has confidence in. I know that meant a lot to him. It’s something he carries every day.”
It starts at 5 a.m. with the shriek of his alarm. By 6, he’s at the facility and in the weight room. Bell said strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese has tried to get him to back off some, or at least back up the start time, but Bell gave that suggestion the JuJu treatment.
“He’s big on sleep and recovery. I get all that,” Bell said. “But I told him, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead.’ I’ve always been a morning person. It just jumpstarts my day, gets my routine going. If I don’t do that, I just feel out of whack. I’m a creature of habit.”
Ironically, that may be the one area where Bell has struggled to lead. He has a few faithful members of what he calls “The Breakfast Club,” but for most players it’s either been a hard no from the start or a no thanks after giving it a try.
But Bell’s other initiative has taken off. Every Tuesday — the players’ day off — Bell will finish his morning workout and put together a cutup of film on the next opponent. He’ll watch it a couple of times so he’s prepared, and around 9:30, guys will start filing into the room for the 10 a.m. session.
Bell stands at the front of the defensive meeting room with a clicker, running the show as if he were a coach. He goes through 11 personnel, base, formations, splits, indicators, all while the coaching staff is putting together the game plan upstairs. When the coaches get a break, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo or safeties coach Robert Livingston will pop into the players meeting to help steer the conversation.
“When we’re in those Tuesday meetings, the game plan is still in its infancy,” Livingston said. “So you sneak down there during breaks and say, ‘I feel pretty good about this’ and then it grows a little bit. So by the time they leave, they’ve got a decent understanding of it. Lou usually talks to them around lunch time and gives them a better idea of what it is.”
“That’s just our routine,” Bell said. “It’s our lifestyle now. We all expect to meet on Tuesday to get our week started and get a jumpstart throughout the week. We want to see what concepts will give us conflict. We need to discuss it so we can come in and be smoother at practice.”
Bell did the same thing during his time with the Saints, but COVID-19 limitations prevented him from organizing it here in 2020.
One of the regulars Bell recruited in New Orleans was backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to lend an offensive perspective. Jake Browning, who signed with the Bengals last September, fills that role here, and has since the first week he arrived.
“Sometimes I’ll see something the quarterback does that can be a giveaway, or I’ll explain here’s why they’re calling this against this look, so the DB can know when we play this coverage here is what they want to get to,” Browning said. “Vonn does a great job of getting everybody in there. That’s half the battle. Once everybody is in there, they’ve got a good room as far as multiple people who are contributors and speak up and talk through things.”
One of those key voices, of course, is missing with Bates having not taken part in OTAs or training camp due to not signing the franchise tag.
Bates’ absence is not only felt on the field, but in the locker room and meeting rooms as he was voted a team captain for the first time last season. And like Bell, Bates was a respected as a leader even before they stitched the “C” on his jersey.
But Bell said he doesn’t feel any pressure to do more without Bates.
“His presence is still here in the spirit,” Bell said. “I talk to him all the time. He wants to go out here and ball regardless of the situation. Everything will work out as it works out.”
Still, Bell said this is the youngest safety group he’s been around in his seven-year career with the team drafting Dax Hill, who is expected to be Bates’ replacement either this year or next, in the first round and Tycen Anderson in the fifth. There’s also undrafted rookie Bookie Radley-Hiles.
As strongly as Bell’s voice resonates with the veterans, his leadership is especially valuable when it comes to bringing along the rookies in the room, two of who figure to play a large role in the team’s plans in 2022.
Both Hill and Anderson said Bell has been invaluable to their progress through OTAs and into the thick of training camp.
“In the DB room, whenever I have a question to ask Coach Rob, Vonn always chips in to add something onto coach Rob’s answer,” Hill said. “That’s great leadership. I mean, Coach Rob is always very detailed in his answer, but Vonn can find a way to make it even more relatable.”
“It just hits different when you hear it from somebody who’s played a long time in this league,” Anderson added. “They can take it back to something they experienced. And I learn a lot just listening to Vonn and Coach Rob bounce ideas off each other. It’s not just Vonn asking questions and getting clarification. You can tell he’s super smart.”
Anderson has leadership lineage as a three-year captain at Toledo, but he knows where he stands as a rookie and has spent a lot of time just watching how Bell operates. But it’s not the first time for that.
Bell was offering Anderson help long before either of them arrived in Cincinnati. Former NFL defensive back and Toledo native Jeremy Lincoln holds an annual football camp in his hometown, and he invited Bell to speak when Anderson was a junior at Toledo St. John’s.
“I was a rising player in the area and Vonn gave his number and told me to reach out if I ever needed anything,” Anderson said. “I still have him in my phone as ‘Vonn Bell Saints.’”
One of the first things Anderson did when he got to Cincinnati was to ask Bell if he remembered him.
“He didn’t,” Anderson laughed. “But he still thought it was pretty cool.”
Bell’s influence goes way beyond the defensive backs. A recent example came at a practice last week when the backups were running a red zone drill. When a pass eluded undrafted rookie wide receiver Jack Sorenson in the corner of the end zone, it just looked like an overthrow from Browning.
Bell saw it for what it was and approached Sorenson after the play to coach him up, telling him he needed to get off the line quicker and get his head around sooner because it’s a 50-50 ball and the quarterback expects him to be in a certain spot.
“He’ll see other guys who might be struggling with a technique or a defense or even in life, he’ll buddy up to them and try to help them out,” Duffner said. “He’s a mature guy, and he gets it. He understands the value of team. He gets the ‘we’ mentality.”
Sorenson seemed a bit surprised to be getting release tips from a safety.
“That’s just Vonn,” Livingston said. “He has a voice that can travel throughout the locker room. He can talk to anybody. Leadership takes on a variety of roles and tones, but if you can put out a fire over here and a fire over there and a fire in your own house, that’s tremendously valuable. And that’s what he has. He’s super genuine.”
Linebacker Logan Wilson, one of the rising stars on the defense, explained what Bell has meant to him and his career following a series of conversations in 2020, when Wilson was just trying to find his way and Bell was a newcomer and freshly minted captain.
“I remember as a rookie how many times he gave me advice and was always trying to help me progress as a player because he saw what I could be before I saw what I could become,” Wilson said. “I’m just very appreciative of that. He has the ability to see that in people and push people to be their best.”
But leadership isn’t always about the push. Sometimes it’s pulling on the reins and being a calming, settling voice. Anarumo said Bell did just that in two of the team’s biggest wins last year — the Week 17 victory against Kansas City that clinched the AFC North Division, and the AFC Championship Game against that same Chiefs team.
The Bengals faced double-digit deficits at halftime in both games — 11 points in the regular season and a daunting 18 in the AFC title tilt.
“His calmness is really what stands out to me,” Anarumo said. “Going back to the Kansas City games, seeing him at halftime, he was like, ‘everybody stay with the plan’ and was just very matter of fact. That’s just how he is. Not only does he never panic, he never lets anybody else get rattled.”
And just as his hit on Smith-Schuster will live on in Bengals lore, so, too, will his interception of Patrick Mahomes in overtime of the championship game, setting up Evan McPherson’s game-winning field goal.
It’s one thing to take youngsters under you wing and be the first person in the building every day and run meetings on your own and know the defense and the opposing offense inside and out, but in order to be a truly great leader, you also have to produce.
“Ultimately, you’ve got to be a baller on the field to earn everyone’s respect,” Apple said. “Vonn’s a baller.”
And he’s proud to be a captain.
“I’ve always been an alpha dog,” he said. “I always spoke my mind. My leadership has grown over the years. I was fortunate enough to get around a lot of great guys coming into the league, and when you hear a wise man speaking, you always listen. You always pick up and ask them questions about how they think, what’s their viewpoint, and you take along what you’ve got and add it to your own habits and however you want to remix it.
“Getting voted a captain here has been an outstanding accomplishment, knowing what your peers and the coaching staff view you as. It’s a huge honor.”
(Top photo: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)