CINCINNATI -- Sometime near the start of the Cincinnati Bengals' training camp-opening practice Friday afternoon, the first fumble of the preseason was registered when 6-foot-2, 220-pound receiver Greg Little was stripped from behind by a man more than twice his age.
Just after Little caught a pass in a routine passing drill and turned upfield to jog out an extra 15 to 20 yards, the shorter, blonde-haired man bounded behind him.
The 68-year-old didn't cover ground as quickly as the 26-year-old professional football player, but the effort was certainly there. Arms flying high off his body, legs stretching wide and churning grass underneath them, the older man in the gray shirt eventually caught Little. When he did, he punched the ball out of the receiver's grasp and stumbled awkwardly for another 10 yards as he tried to slow his momentum.
"He's not just standing there to stand there," Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said about the mystery man. "He's here to work, and I appreciate that about him."
It was around the time of Little's fumble that people on the sidelines began wondering: Who was the older man?
He's Al Saunders, a former San Diego Chargers head coach. Saunders also spent a year serving as Jackson's offensive coordinator when Jackson was the Raiders' head coach. They also coached together as assistants in Baltimore in 2009. In Jackson's quest this season to give his offensive players guidance from people he trusts -- coaches who will confirm much of what he teaches them --he pleaded with Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis about bringing Saunders to town in a secondary coaching role.
Lewis and owner Mike Brown signed off on the request, and Saunders, who retired in April after three years as a senior offensive assistant with the Raiders, came to Cincinnati.
"I've been a little busier than I thought I'd have been," Saunders said. "My wife asked me, she said, 'Was it a sabbatical or retirement?"
Saunders will be working with the Bengals through the preseason, spending the bulk of his time with the receivers. It's always been his favorite position to coach, he said, and it's one he coached for three teams at the college and pro level throughout his 35-year career.
"Oh man, I love him. He's so energetic," Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green said following practice. "Saunders told me the Hall of Famers always need something to work on. Like I'm just trying to get better on my releases. That's why I'm out here. If I can take an extra 5-10 minutes to get better on just one little thing this whole year, I'll be fine."
The Bengals hope to be finer on turnovers this year. Last season they committed 26, including nine lost fumbles.
Saunders said part of his purpose is to provide players teaching moments similar to the one involving Little, who was just signed Thursday after being cut by Cincinnati this past February.
"That's one of the things Marvin said: We've got to hold on to the football and to try to take it away," Saunders said. "Turnovers are the most important differential in any game to any team in the league. You just kind of have to reinforce it, and that's one way to do it."