Updated: Feb 28
They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but if you have an Apple for an entire season, do you win a Super Bowl? That answer will be yes if Eli Apple and the Bengals have anything to say about it.
What is there to say about Apple that hasn’t already been said on Twitter? From New York to New Orleans, Eli just seems to rub people the wrong way. But before you start feeling too sorry for him, understand that he doesn’t care one bit. Eli has found a home in Cincinnati and anyone who’s got a problem with that is free to tell him personally. Just don’t be surprised if he dishes a little back at you.
The future is bright for Eli Apple and the Cincinnati Bengals, who are set to take on the Los Angeles Rams this Sunday in Super Bowl LVI. Since the beginning of the season, Apple has solidified his position as the starting corner opposite Chidobe Awuzie, fellow member of the Bengals’ 2021 free-agent class. Things are looking good now, but it wasn’t always this easy being Eli.
Apple was drafted by the New York Giants with the 10th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft after playing for Ohio State in college. As a Buckeye, Apple was a member of the 2013 National Championship team which upset #1 seed Alabama and followed that up by crushing Oregon in the title game. Apple started fourteen of fifteen games that season for the Buckeyes. The following season would see Eli win Defensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl as the Buckeyes routed Notre Dame 44 - 28.
Unfortunately, the chemistry that fueled the Buckeyes did not follow Apple to New York. On draft night, the Giants’ front office supposedly favored offensive tackle Jack Conklin and edge rusher Leonard Floyd. Fortune favors the bold though, and the Giants watched as the Tennessee Titans and Chicago Bears traded up to picks #8 and #9 to select Conklin and Floyd, respectively.
(Side-note: this was the draft where footage of Laremy Tunsil was leaked showing him using a marijuana gas mask which is still one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen on live television).
(Extra side-note: this was also the draft where an Atlanta Falcons’ coach supposedly asked Eli if he “liked men” during an interview).
The pick wasn’t well received by Giants’ fans. General Manager Jerry Reese vehemently defended the pick saying, “When somebody doesn't know what they're talking about, it's easy to depict it that way, because they don't know what they're talking about.” Ouch. Bigger ouch for Reese who was fired a year later.
Regardless, Eli was set to start his career with the Giants. His rookie season, the Giants went 11 - 5 under head coach Ben McAdoo before bowing out to the Green Bay Packers in the wild card round. Apple started eleven games in the regular season, with seven passes defended and an interception.
So, it seemed like Eli’s career was off to a good start. That is, until everything around him in New York imploded. Coach McAdoo began the year by having a Marcia Clark-moment in training camp and changing up his hairstyle. The new look didn’t breathe new life into the Giants or quarterback Eli Manning, who went on to have one of his worst NFL seasons. The Giants began the season 0 - 5 and were eliminated from playoff contention before week 13.
And week 13 was a doozy for the Giants. McAdoo decided to bench Manning, who had made 210 consecutive starts, for backup quarterback Geno Smith. Now, no offense to Geno Smith, but he was not the guy for this job. Not when the Giants’ two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback is in the hunt to match Brett Favre for most consecutive starts all-time. Smith wasn’t even much of a prospect at the time, having played for the Giants’ in-stadium rivals the New York Jets from 2013 to 2016. You can’t make this stuff up.
(Triple side-note: someone really needs to make a 30 for 30 on that 2017 Giants season)
Needless to say, this wasn’t a good environment for a young player like Apple. Following the week 13 debacle, the Giants fired McAdoo, named Steve Spagnuolo interim head coach, and re-inserted Manning as the starting quarterback. Apple had been inactive since week 10 following a stretch of poor play.
After being smashed 0 - 23 at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals in week 16, Apple’s teammate Landon Collins went on a local New York radio show and started bashing the second-year corner, saying Apple needed to “grow up”, was a locker room “cancer” and should not be part of the teams’ 2018 plans. Collins apologized the next day, but the damage was already done.
Apple missed the Giants’ week 17 game after being suspended for what interim general manager Kevin Adams called “conduct detrimental to the team”. His reputation was in ruins. Things seemed like they couldn’t get any worse for Eli.
The Giants would hire Pat Shurmur to be the next head coach. One of Shurmur’s new hires was a little-known defensive coach from Staten Island, a certain Lou Anarumo. Anarumo would be named the defensive backs coach (more on him in a bit). Apple would start the Giants’ first two games under Shurmur until suffering a groin injury that would keep him out two weeks. Upon his return, Apple was re-inserted into the starting lineup, collecting a fumble recovery in week 7.
That same week the Giants would ship Apple to New Orleans for a 2019 4th round pick and a 2020 7th round pick. Apple would continue to man one of the outside cornerback positions for the Saints alongside former Ohio State teammate Marshon Lattimore. Apple would collect two interceptions and a fumble recovery in just 10 games with the Saints, helping the team reach the NFC Championship Game.
Unfortunately for Apple and the Saints, their Super Bowl run was derailed by an infamous no-call when Los Angeles Rams’ cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman ran into Saints’ wide receiver Tommylee Lewis. The refs didn’t throw the flag and the Saints were forced to settle for a field goal. The Rams would tie the game with their own field goal, sending the game to overtime, where the Rams would win on a 57-yard field goal from kicker Greg Zuerlein.
Apple’s 2019 season was less eventful. He finished the year with the Saints, collecting a forced fumble and four passes defended in 15 games. After the season, the Saints declined his contract’s fifth-year option, making Apple an unrestricted free agent.
Before the 2020 season began, Apple was supposed to sign with the newly relocated Las Vegas Raiders but the deal fell through. The Carolina Panthers then swooped in, signing Apple to a one-year, $3 million contract to compete for a role in their cornerback room. His tenure with the Panthers was forgettable.
Apple suffered injuries in training camp, forcing him to be on injured reserve before the season started. Things didn’t get much better from there. Apple only appeared in two games for the Panthers, playing only 34 snaps.
Once his contract was up, the Panthers did not retain Apple. While being informed he would not be retained, Panthers’ head coach Matt Rhule allegedly told Apple that he’d “never play anywhere again”. Oops. But Rhule was dead wrong.
Eli was a free agent once more. In a recent press conference, Apple cited three primary reasons why he chose Cincinnati to play for: his familiarity with Bengals’ defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, his prior relationship with former Ohio State and current Bengals’ safety Vonn Bell, and the opportunity to come in and make an impact. And despite all the odds and all the hurdles, Eli has been a difference-maker in Cincinnati.
Coming into training camp, expectations were low for Apple. The Bengals had also just signed corners Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton that offseason. This followed the Bengals signing cornerback Trae Waynes the previous offseason. With 2020 starter Darius Phillips also in the mix, it’s safe to say the Bengals’ cornerback room was crowded.
However, following a lost 2020 season where Waynes missed the entire year with a pectoral injury, Waynes’ body again failed him. He would miss most of the Bengals’ training camp and preseason with a hamstring injury, forcing Apple into one of the starting outside cornerback positions opposite Awuzie. Eli never looked back.
Although he’s had some rough moments and some untimely penalties, Eli Apple has been extremely dependable throughout the season, especially considering he wasn’t supposed to be in this situation. He’s been sticky in coverage and solid in run support.
“He does a great job,” said Bengals’ head coach Zac Taylor, “He plays with a high degree of confidence and he’s done some really good things for us this year.” Apple’s list of accomplishments would continue to grow.
Take, for instance, the Bengals’ first matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders. Coming off their bye-week and having lost two straight games, including a 41 - 16 drubbing at the hands of the Cleveland Browns, the Bengals really couldn’t afford to lose this game. Eli stepped up, recovering a fumble and intercepting a Derrick Carr pass with 4:51 remaining in the 4th quarter, sealing the victory for the Bengals.
In week 17, with the Kansas City Chiefs in town and the Bengals needing a win to secure the AFC North, Apple and the entire defense rose to the occasion, holding the Chiefs to just three points in the second half as the offense came to life in the comeback. Just a couple weeks later, versus the #1 seed Tennessee Titans, Eli tipped a Ryan Tannehill pass that was intercepted by Bengals’ linebacker Logan Wilson, helping put the Bengals’ unflappable rookie kicker Evan McPherson in position to kick the game winning field goal.
Most recently, Eli was involved in perhaps the most important play of the Bengals’ season. With :05 seconds remaining in the first half of the AFC Championship Game, the Chiefs had the ball on the goalline up 21 - 10. The Bengals’ defense was reeling. With the clock stopped following an incomplete pass on first down, Mahomes and the Chiefs lined up with enough time on the clock for a quick endzone throw. A field goal was still on the table, provided Mahomes’ trigger finger was itchy. Then the unthinkable happened.
Mahomes took the snap and looked to the middle of the field towards All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce. The Bengals’ defense took away the first option, so Mahomes looked to his left where Tyreek Hill, the Cheetah himself, was racing towards the sideline. Mahomes took a huge risk and lateralled the ball to Hill, making a bet that the fastest man in the NFL could work some magic and find the endzone. What Mahomes didn’t count on though, was that Eli Apple would be ready for the moment.
Mahomes had sent Hill in motion before the snap, so Eli, who was in man coverage, had to race across the field to keep up. As soon as Hill caught the ball, Eli was squared up with the All-Pro receiver. Hill tried to dive towards the endzone but Eli was there to meet him, utilizing a clothesline that would have made Hulk Hogan himself proud.
The half was over. The momentum shifted. The rest is history.
The Bengals would go on to overcome the 11-point deficit at halftime to defeat the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, sending the team to the Super Bowl for the first time in 31 years. Lou Anarumo’s defense held Mahomes and company to three points in the second half. They also wouldn’t have done it without Eli.
Apple has gone from top ten draft pick to Panthers’ castoff to starter on a Super Bowl team. What a ride for the 26-year old from Philadelphia. Surrounded by great teammates and a player-friendly coaching staff, Apple has overcome a tremendous amount of adversity to get to this point. It hasn’t always been perfect, but the strides he’s made this season have been obvious, and he’s brought an infectious humor and energy to the team that everyone can appreciate.
Evan McPherson would classify Eli as the “class clown” of the locker room. “...He’s a really cool dude, a really, really genuine guy, who’s almost like a kid,” said safety Jessie Bates III, “He just loves the game. He loves what comes with it. I’m happy that he’s part of our team.”
Eli is finally surrounded by players and coaches who support him, and nowhere is that more evident than in his relationship with Coach Taylor and Coach Anarumo. Annie Apple, Eli’s mom, shared two really wonderful posts on Twitter thanking the two coaches for everything they did to help Eli grow into the player he is today.
“We love you coach Lou; from NY to Cincinnati, thank you for always believing in my Eli,” Annie tweeted, “You’ve never wavered. We appreciate the man, coach, human you are. NFL is a business but you’ll always be family. U coached a heck of AFC championship game. We are Super Bowl bound Bengals”.
And to the Bengals’ head coach, Annie tweeted, “Coach Taylor, Thank you for curating a culture where men can be themselves. Thanks for not micromanaging their souls. U created a culture of freedom & brotherhood where guys enjoy the game & evolve as players & men. This culture is what fuels the life of this SB bound Bengals.”
Taylor and Anarumo saw the potential in Eli Apple, and when he was given his starting opportunity, he never gave it back. Apple has been more than just a contributor to a Super Bowl team, he has been a metaphor for the entire Bengals’ season. Like Eli, no one believed in the Bengals except for the players and coaches in the locker room. Like Eli, the team has had highs and lows. But also like Eli, the team is playing their best ball at the end of the season. The Bengals are Super Bowl bound. Make sure you thank Eli Apple.