For a change, the biggest loss of an NFL off-season hasn't occurred in a courtroom or at a negotiating table. It happened at the downtown Cincinnati YMCA on May 17. Bengal cornerback Eric Thomas, a rising NFL star, was playing pickup basketball. While leading a fastbreak, Thomas reached for a long pass and planted his right foot as he caught the ball. Over the squeak of sneakers on the hardwood, there was a sound like a popgun going off. Thomas, who took a course in anatomy and physiology while at Tulane, winced but didn't cry out. "I think I just tore my anterior cruciate [ligament]," he said to himself. He was right.
Major reconstructive knee surgery two weeks later has sidelined Thomas, 25, for the 1990 season, and Cincinnati is still trying to put itself back together. "It was a devastating injury for the young man and for us," said Bengal general manager Paul Brown. Thomas, the Cincinnati starter at right corner since being drafted in the second round in '87, has had 12 interceptions and one Pro Bowl appearance in his NFL career. Regarded as one of the premier one-on-one pass defenders in the league, he usually has covered the opposing team's quickest receiver.
To compensate for the loss of Thomas, the Bengals will move free safety Rickey Dixon to right corner, and the new free safety will be the old one, Solomon Wilcots, who lost his job to Dixon before the 1989 season. But Thomas might not be the only loss in the secondary. All-Pro strong safety David Fulcher is unsigned, and Cincinnati insiders think it could be a long holdout because Fulcher wants $1 million a year. And left corner Lewis Billups, who also remains unsigned, recently pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges stemming from a January incident in which he pointed a at two undercover Cincinnati police officers. Sentencing is scheduled for July 31.
The absence of Thomas, coupled with the likely holdout of Fulcher and the uncertain status of Billups, cripples the Bengals just as they were putting together one of the brightest young defenses in the league. Until now, Cincinnati was not hurt by its poor pass rush because it could rely on Thomas's covering a top receiver longer than the average corner, thus giving the pass rush time to get to the quarterback. What hurts all the more is losing Thomas just as the division rival Cleveland Browns are making big-play running back Eric Metcalf a full-time player on offense. Thomas would have covered Metcalf a lot of the time.
"I'm sure the team is devastated, as I am," says Thomas, a bubbly optimist whose rehabilitation program should have him back in action for the 1991 season. "I thought I was on the verge of being one of the best. But I just have to look at this as a big challenge, my biggest. Tell them E. Thomas will be back."