Camp Tour: Eli Apple sends 'peace and love' to his haters
The cornerback that people love to mock is still smiling in the wake of Cincinnati's Super Bowl loss. (He'll keep talking on the field, too.)
CINCINNATI — The plot twist that nobody saw coming this past 2021-22 NFL season struck at Arrowhead Stadium in the AFC Championship Game. Absolutely nobody expected Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and the Kansas City Chiefs at their pyrotechnic best to blow a three-score lead… at home… with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
The Chiefs had one foot hovering directly over the throat of the Cincinnati Bengals with five seconds remaining in a lopsided first half. From the 1-yard line, they opted to go for the kill, for the touchdown, to make it 28-10.
And in swooped the cornerback that everybody loves to hate: Eli Apple.
The trash-talking connoisseur dumped Tyreek Hill short of the goal line, effectively choked the Chiefs’ momentum dead in its tracks and you know the rest. Cincy’s defense rendered Mahomes a pumpkin in the second half to reach the Super Bowl and Apple had the time of his life. He called Hill a “baby,” offered both he and Mecole Hardman Super Bowl tickets and ramped it up a notch in a conversation with Go Long before flying to Los Angeles for the big game. Apple said then the Bengals did not care for the Chiefs’ cocky disposition through that first half, assuring, “They f----- up.”
Nothing sums up the NFL quite like what happened next. Apple’s blissful high quickly took a dark turn low when the Bengals fell in Super Bowl LVI to the Rams, 23-20. He was the guilty party on the game-winning touchdown, of course. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp caught an easy pitch-and-catch over Apple with 1:25 to go and in came the tidal wave of memes and mockery and Chiefs players returning fire. From Hill laughing to Hardman flashing a video of his Super Bowl ring to a slew of other players ‘round the league (Lamar Jackson, Hollywood Brown, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Darrel Williams, Rashod Bateman to name a few), we haven’t seen an NFL player dragged online quite like this. On the sideline, even the soft-spoken Robert Woods referred to the corner as “applesauce.” Surely, you’ve seen the picture of a life-sized slice of burnt toast at the podium, too.
While visiting Bengals training camp on our camp tour, I caught up with Apple to see where his head’s at into this season.
Because what’s fascinating is that Apple should get a realistic shot at revenge. Players victimized in Super Bowls typically disappear into the ether — never to be seen again — and here’s Apple still starting for arguably the best secondary in the AFC. The 2021 season was undoubtedly a renaissance for the former first-round pick, so the front office brought him back on a one-year, $3.75 contract. As the starter opposite the exceptional Chidobe Awuzie, he’ll get more opportunities in the national limelight. Probably in the playoffs, too. The ball will be spiraling toward No. 20 again with another game on the line.
The uproar was quite strange. You never see NFL players collectively rag on someone in such relentless fashion. The 24 hours following Cincinnati’s Super Bowl loss felt like a middle school hallway. Asked why everyone seems to hate him, Apple doesn’t lift an eyebrow.
None of it, he insists, pisses him off.
“It’s OK. I don’t care. It’s whatever,” Apple says. “I understand I’m in a great position to have a great impact on the game, so it’s about being locked in and not focused on the outside noise.”
That’s the best — and only — tact to take as an NFL cornerback. Life on an island can drive anyone mad. If you’re thin-skinned, he agrees, you’re a dead man walking. You will not last in pro football. Apple is now entering his eighth NFL season. Along the way, he has seen other corners go off the rails mentally. For a while, honestly, he did care what everybody else was saying about him.
“I went through those roller-coaster rides where you want to defend yourself every single time somebody says some shit,” Apple says. “I’m to the point where it doesn’t faze me anymore. I’ve got a great opportunity to do my job, make a lot of money and bless myself. So, I don’t have to complain.”
What’s most surprising is that Apple turned this corner just this past February, after Cincinnati’s Super Bowl loss.
Years past — being suspended, traded, written off as a bust — he’d allow the opinions of others to poison his mind. Now? Unless someone’s willing to say something to his face, Apple genuinely isn’t concerned about what’s said.
Because it’s always different, he adds, “when you see someone out in person.” Words on a screen are “just some words.”
Adds Apple: “It’s not going to change my day or change the way I look at myself, the talent I have and the people around me. They believe in me. That’s all that matters.”
Granted, it’s not like Apple deleted his social media after that Rams game. He actually did respond to the mass furor on his Instagram account. Posting a picture of himself leaving SoFi Stadium, he posted a warning to the rest of the NFL in writing: “Yall ReAwoke A Fire In Me That Will Only Make Me Stronger and Im Beyond Excited To Unleash That Demon Again to Exponential Levels On Any Opp That Lines Up Across From Me Next Season.”
Sitting in his locker this day, all the motivation he says he needs now is seeing how hard everyone in the Bengals locker room is working this training camp to get back to that moment. Apple dismisses the idea that he’s using any negativity as fuel. Given multiple opportunities to snipe back at anyone on his hit list, Apple takes the high road.
“Peace and love to everybody,” he says. “Everybody’s going through something.”
The final game was rough. Still, last season was easily the best of Apple’s career. He finished with 70 tackles (53 solo), 13 passes defensed and two interceptions in 20 games, so Apple makes a point to center his thoughts around all of the good that went down. He’s thinking far more about the team’s thrilling comeback win over the Chiefs (“a surreal feeling, something you want to carry into this year”) than the Rams agony. And until he has the opportunity to spar with an opponent, Apple and Bengals superstar receiver Ja’Marr Chase sure have enjoyed a hearty competition at camp. Last week, the 2021 fifth overall pick danced right into the end zone after burning Apple for a touchdown. Yeah, the receiver put some extra sauce on that celebration, too. Said Chase: “He pisses me off, yeah, I ain’t gonna lie.”
Here at his locker, Apple only plays diplomat. He calls Chase a special receiver who has only gotten better this year. (“So much faster, so stronger.”) But, no, don’t expect one deep touchdown to stop Apple from talking. As Zen-like as he may appear, teammates know he’s going to be himself on the field.
They love it, too. His mouth gives the secondary a bite it had lacked.
“Eli’s the talker, man,” says nickel back Mike Hilton. “In every room, he’s the talker. Obviously, he backs it up with his play. He’s never going to hold his tongue, no matter who it is or what he has to say. At his position, you have to have that type of confidence in yourself. We just let Eli be Eli.”
Hilton cannot pinpoint one specific outlandish thing Apple has said on the field because, well, where would you start? “It’s a lot.”
Nobody wants him to dial it back, either. On the contrary…
“It’s who he is,” Hilton says, “and we embrace that as a defense. You need somebody who plays that evil role. He’s the guy to do it.”
Hilton believes Apple sincerely does not care if everybody hates him and calls his teammate a joy to be around every day.
Hey, if the talking was a problem, the Bengals easily could’ve cut ties. They value Apple in his entirety. From top to bottom, Hilton believes the Bengals boast one of the best secondaries in the league. It starts with the “best safety duo” in the NFL in Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell, and continues right to their cornerback room. Unlike Apple, however, Hilton does envision that Super Bowl touchdown serving as motivation. He knows Apple heard all the criticism.
“We’re expecting a lot out of him this year,” Hilton adds. “We know he’s going to go out there and make a lot of plays.”
It’s taken a while but after all the turmoil in New York and New Orleans, this has been a strong fit.
By the end of the season, Apple was extremely comfortable in the scheme. He made a point to “lock in,” to “understand my role.” And it showed through Cincy’s Super Bowl run. The L.A. heartbreak should not muddy the fact that this Bengals defense is most equipped to stop the star quarterbacks in the AFC. Through the postseason, they shut down Derek Carr (69.2 passer rating, three sacks), Ryan Tannehill (66.7 rating, three interceptions) and Mahomes (two interceptions, four sacks, 12.3 rating after halftime). Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard, two mountain men at defensive end, supply a steady pass rush up front. Surrendering 23 points in a Super Bowl is about all a team can ask for in the modern NFL, too. Up to the final drive, the Bengals did a perfectly fine job vs. Matthew Stafford.
We’ll explore this Bengals defense more later this month. It’s a group that fully expects to be different than so many teams in recent history that’ve lost a Super Bowl. As Peter King noted this offseason, only one Super Bowl loser in the last 27 years has won the conference championship the following season. Omit those ’18 Patriots and the last six Super Bowl losers have won an average of 8.8 games the next year.
A damning reality. The hangover is real.
Apple is optimistic these Bengals can buck history because — big picture — it took the defense a long time to hit its stride.
“Put in more work. Put in more work every day,” Apple says. “Take it one day at a time and get better and communicate as much as we can. And love each other as much as possible and understand we’re still a great young team and I think we can be a lot better this year. Understand situations better. Especially as a defense, we need to start the season faster and not give up the plays we shouldn’t give up. I think we could be a lot better. Last year, we were just OK and hit our stride at the end. I think as a unit we could be way better as a defense.”
As for this group’s identity? When the Bengals are at their best? He calls it a “fast flow” unit that creates turnovers. Those turnovers sparked a Super Bowl run, and if they pick up where they left off? “I don’t think there’s a team out there who can beat us,” he says.
He’ll face Tyreek Hill on Sept. 29. That Bengals-Dolphins Thursday Night Game will be in primetime. He’ll be tested by the likes of Tom Brady (Dec. 24) and Josh Allen (Jan. 2) in addition to his AFC North foils. He’ll face those Chiefs again on Dec. 4. Perhaps he even gets back to the Super Bowl stage.
For the official record, Apple claims he doesn’t want to stick it to anyone personally in 2022. He promises there’s no personal revenge on the line. Nor does he have any messages for his nemesis, Hill.
“I got love for Tyreek,” Apple says. “He’s a great person, a great player. He got his money so congrats to him for that. I’m excited to see what he does over there in Miami. Nothing but peace and love to that man, for sure.”
For one day in early August, this sure looks like a new Eli Apple. A man in touch with mind, body and soul harboring no ill will toward anyone. Almost like he spent the offseason taking a Buddhist pilgrimage and he’ll be greeting Hill for a warm embrace the night of Sept. 29.
Don’t be fooled, though.
With one interception, one big tackle under the bright lights, we can fully expect to hear Apple. Eli’s Eli, as teammates say.
That’s a good thing for the Bengals, too.
Like practically all teams powered by MVP-caliber quarterbacks, it’s pretty clear the wheels would fall off around here if the team ever did lose Joe Burrow. He’s been sidelined from camp after having his appendix removed, but should return soon. Defense ruled the day at the practice I attended.
If Evan McPherson stumbled onto the practice field in street clothes, security would probably have him removed and ask where his parents are. Even by kicker standards, he’s a small fella who looks far younger than his 23 years of age. Then, the ball fires off his foot and… sweet baby Jesus. I’ve never seen anything like this. McPherson has a cannon of a right leg. What peace of mind it must be for head coach Zac Taylor to know that all his offense needs to do is inch anywhere close to the 40-yard line to win a game. McPherson was money from long range at this practice. And as excellent Bengals beat writer Paul Dehner Jr. detailed, McPherson cleared a 65-yard kick at one recent practice that would’ve been good from 70-plus. Baltimore’s Justin Tucker set the NFL record last season with a 66-yarder but it’d be no shock if McPherson shattered that mark this season. You guys know I’d still like to see kickers and punters completely eliminated from the sport but maybe McPherson is forcing me to open my mind. A smidge.
OK, OK. Owner Mike Brown doesn’t spend like other owners. That’s no slight. Honestly, it’s somewhat endearing in a league chockfull of greed and power. But it sure does get you wondering if the team will break the bank for Burrow in a year or two. The quarterback will demand a blank check with the market skyrocketing — and he’ll warrant every penny. Gut feeling here, but I think Brown and everyone running this franchise knows how valuable Burrow is and finds a way to get a deal done when the time is right. The Bengals are close to selling the naming rights to Paul Brown Stadium for the first time ever, a decision that shows they’re serious about competing financially. Every team that drafts an undisputed star quarterback finds a way to reach a deal with that star quarterback. Cincinnati will find a way, and a good Bengals team is good for the sport.
Jessie Bates isn’t at camp. The Bengals safety received the franchise tag, a one-year salary of $13 million, and decided to hold out. He’s likely seeking a multi-year deal in the ballpark of the top safeties in the NFL. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s new four-year deal in Pittsburgh pays him $18.4 million per season. It’s a tough spot for a team full of talented players on rookie deals — eventually it’s time for Burrow, Chase, Tee Higgins and Logan Wilson to get paid. Since he has not signed that franchise tender, Bates is not subject to fines. (Which explains why a guy like Buffalo’s Jordan Poyer is showing up for training camp practices as he seeks a new deal.) The Bengals did cover their bases by drafting safety Daxton Hill, cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt and safety Tycen Anderson but Bates is only 25 years and clearly in his prime. The guess here is that he’ll blink and return to play with a group of defensive backs that’s extremely close on and off the field. But we’ll see.
Cannot wait to share a profile from this Cincy trip, too. Be on the lookout for this later this month. And if you’re new around here, just ding the Subscribe button above to get all Go Long stories. Free and pay options are always available.
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