When A.J. Green—A.J. Green!—is beating people up, you know the season has taken a turn for the strange.
It’s hard not to feel for Adriel Jeremiah Green. Aside from the repeated cheap shots he suffered via Jalen Ramsey, Green was sure to crack after all the hurried and missed throws Andy Dalton has chucked his way. Emblematic was the play late in the first quarter, when a sure TD bomb to a wide-open Green instead sailed out of bounds. It’s tough to spend seven years wondering what life would be like with a better quarterback. And unsurprisingly, once Green was ejected, the sputtering Bengals offense became impotent. The 23-7 final score flattered Cincy—the only good news from the entire affair is that Green wasn’t suspended for Sunday’s game in Nashville against the Titans.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, not after the Bengals went for explosive offensive players in the first two rounds of the draft. We’ve covered Joe Mixon’s woes before in this space—he continues to be mis- and underused thanks to poor blocking, unimaginative schemes, and the coaching staff’s mystifying love of Jeremy Hill.
More irritating still is that the first-round pick, wideout John Ross III, remains little more than a rumor halfway into the season. He came into the draft injured, and got nicked up in preseason and early in his regular season debut. But he’s been healthy and a full participant at practice for three weeks now.
Just in case you forgot, Ross is the burner from the University of Washington who scorched the combine 40-yard dash with all-time record speed (4.22 seconds). He scored 18 touchdowns last season while a Husky. His speed “jumped off the tape,” according to none other than Marvin Lewis. His presence was sure to give Green and the other playmakers on offense room to maneuver, not to mention give Cincy it’s version of DeSean Jackson.
So why won’t Lewis play Ross?
According to the coach, Ross doesn’t know the full playbook, at least well enough to contribute in a real game. He can’t run the plays at full game speed. He’s just figuring things out after missing so much practice time.
Mostly, though, he’s a rookie.
In a vacuum, one can appreciate the patience and long-term thinking Lewis and the Bengals coaches have put on display here. I mean, Marv is not signed for next year, and every defeat and lackluster showing moves them all one step closer to the unemployment line. Many other coaches would be hell-bent to race the first-round pick onto the field, future consequences be damned.
But every rookie under Lewis seems to go through this. Sure, there is a learning curve, and Lewis is far from the only coach to mistrust the youngsters in favor of vets who have more reps in his system. But these are sensational, game-changing talents that are not seeing the field for huge chunks of time.
Look at the rookie seasons of the last several first-round picks, in terms of snaps played, relative to the total number of snaps that season:
Dre Kirkpatrick, 2012: 42 snaps (4%)
Kevin Zeitler, 2012: 1,051 snaps (99%)
Tyler Eifert, 2013: 673 snaps (59%)
Darqueze Dennard, 2014: 62 snaps (5.5%)
Cedric Ogbuehi, 2015: 65 snaps (6%)
William Jackson, 2016: 0 snaps (0%)
John Ross, 2017: 11 snaps (2%)
Sure, injuries play a role in this, as Kirkpatrick, Ogbuehi, and Jackson all had serious ouchies in those years. But the trend is there—rookies, no matter how dynamic, will only see so much action, unless their position is one of dire need (see Kevin Zeitler). Naturally, the only first rounder to see significant time as a rookie was the only consistent Pro Bowl caliber player they’ve developed, as well as the one guy no longer on the team. Because Bengals.
Jackson’s case a year ago is particularly illuminating of the Lewis mindset when it comes to impact rookies. After sustaining a pectoral injury in preseason, he was eligible to come off the Injured Reserve list late in the season. So too was fourth-string running back Cedric Peerman. Only one could return to action. Lewis chose Peerman, because the team was banged up at running back, and Peerman was a valuable special teams player. Everyone loves Rev Ced, but a valuable chance to gain WJ3 some reps in an otherwise lost season went by the wayside. He’s been very good this year; imagine if he had four more games in his bank of experience.
We heard the same set of arguments this past week, when Cody Core was activated ahead of Ross, in part because of special teams play. Never mind that Core couldn’t stop a punt return touchdown by Jacksonville’s Jaydon Mickens (a small, speedy wideout out of Washington—who else fits that description?). More crucial is that once again the Bengals chose to concentrate on a small aspect of the team, rather than doing everything possible to develop their prized rookie and potentially spark a spiraling season.
If nothing else, surely Ross could be returning kicks (he took four back for touchdowns in college). He could have a three-to-five play package utilizing his dominant trait, speed, even if the majority of the playbook is foreign to him. Heck, he could just run fly patterns and clear out some space underneath. Unless Lewis is just covering for Ross’s total incompetence in practice—and if that’s the case, why was he taken ninth?—there is no reason not to get him at least a little action.
Playing the kids is always the best option for a team in need of a jolt. Heck, look no further than the Bengals defense, where the pass rush has been resuscitated thanks in large part to the contributions of rookies Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis. Or look to the NFL’s hottest team, the New Orleans Saints, whose surprising success is due in large part to an outstanding rookie class. Marshon Lattimore is already among the league’s best cornerbacks, while safety Marcus Williams is playing excellent centerfield, belying his supposed inexperience (in Cincy, the DBs always redshirt). Running back Alvin Kamara is doing for the Saints what Mixon is supposed to be doing for the Bengals—providing options in both the run and passing game, to go with the occasional huge play. Tackle Ryan Ramczyk has provided stability on a banged-up line.
Let’s face it—even though the (now totally ridiculous) path to a playoff berth is still viable record-wise, this team isn’t very good, and won’t be sniffing the playoffs if form holds at all. It’s all about player development at this point. Lewis surely doesn’t want to hear that, especially if it means his days on the Bengals sideline are numbered, but about the only good thing that can come out of the season’s second half is John Ross playing like the ninth overall pick. Or simply playing at all.
Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.