When you characterize players that you expect to improve, normally one wouldn't expect to drive such conversations towards Rey Maualuga. Why would you?
We can still hear Mike Mayock's criticisms of Maualuga during Cincinnati's wild card loss to the Houston Texans permeating our distant memories. In addition to multiple missed tackles, the starting middle linebacker allowed four receptions for 59 yards receiving to tight ends and receivers. It was a one-sided show with Maualuga joining Bengals fans with a first-row seat.
And it wasn't even his worst performance in pass coverage (he was dissected by Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins). In fact, his performance against Houston was a trend consistent for the entire season. Players that Maualuga covered caught 66 of 85 passes for a completion rate of 77.6 percent, averaged 10.8 yards/reception, and 414 yards after the catch. Opposing quarterbacks were all-stars, with a quarterback rating of 109.5 against Maualuga.
He was the epitome of suckage. So much so that even Maualuga wasn't sure that the Bengals would want him back.
"I felt as if the playoff game was sort of like, if I perform well, they would want me," Maualuga said after the playoff loss. "I don’t know if they want me, but I do know I didn’t perform well. If I did well, good results will happen. I felt as if those plays cost our defense due to my actions and where I was and how I didn’t execute it. So who knows? I really don’t know if they want me back."
Enough faith existed from the coaching staff, who were confident enough that Maualuga's career has some potential remaining to turn into something worth being proud of. The Bengals inked Maualuga to a two-year deal worth $6.5 million in March and the community of Bengals fans collectively punched their defeated souls.
But there's reasons to believe that things will improve.
Along with the team identifying his issues and Maualuga clearly facing the knowledge that he's disappointed his teammates and coaches, there's a desire to put everything behind him and prove that the Bengals made the right choice.
"Although they signed me back, it's still early on," Maualuga said after signing his new contract. "I've still got to go out in OTAs and show our coaches that I'm better than I was last year, better than my previous four years here," Maualuga said. "I had a lot to think about this offseason. I understand what I need to work on. I understand what my role is coming in. I just want to make sure that since I've been given this second chance to work on the things that need work and try to make sure I'm a better person than I was last year."
Despite finishing second on the team with 151 tackles in 2012, many of the issues that held Maualuga back centered from the linebacker avoiding mistakes, which indirectly caused hesitation and departing confidence.
"He takes everything very hard, takes everything to heart and sometimes that holds him back. We were talking about it today," Zimmer said. "That was two days ago that we played the game. I said, ‘You’ve got to let that go.’ That’s not doing him any good to harbor all those thoughts that he let this guy down or me down or the team down. Because he didn’t.
"He’s very conscientious about not making a mistake, and if he does, it stays with him a little bit, yeah. He made some good plays in that game, too. Some real good plays. But because he’s the middle linebacker, he’s like the quarterback," Zimmer said. "A lot of people probably don’t see the plays where the defensive line messed up, and there was enough of those, too. Or they don’t see what the corner or safety did if the ball’s not thrown to them. Know what I mean? There were others where he just happened to be there and for some reason he’s kind of a lightning rod for people."
There's also a feeling that veteran linebacker James Harrison will provide an example for Maualuga to charge forward with a mentality that someone like Maualuga needs.
"I think his leadership and that mentality he brings, as far as 'Can't be blocked, can't be stopped,' he's going to bring everything he has to make sure he gets to the play," Maualuga said. "He brings a lot to the table. He's going to boost up our defense that much more. I'm just looking forward to having him come in and see what we can become as a group."
Another thought is that Maualuga won't be a three-down backer this year, instead watching from the sidelines during obvious passing downs. Vontaze Burfict, James Harrison, and Emmanuel Lamur figure heavily in passing situations, removing Maualuga in the passing game where he's become the greatest liability.
Long ago are the thoughts of Pro Bowl possibilities. Perhaps too much was expected and thus those expectations feed into the disappointment. Now expectations are reset for realistic prognostications. And hey. Look at it this way. It really couldn't get much worse.