I'm not going to lie. I'm one of those fans that's been disappointed in Rey Maualuga -- and not because of last year, or the playoff game two years ago. I didn't favor Dhani Jones' being replaced four years ago. And when strong rumors persisted last year that Vontaze Burfict would be the de facto middle backer, putting Maualuga at SAM, I was on board [Truth is Burfict is the de facto middle linebacker... it just so happens that Maualuga is also which causes issues]. Maybe there's an unfairness here... high expectations, high draft pick, good start as a SAM backer. Whatever it is, for the past four years, it's been a precarious relationship between player and fan. It goes like this: Fans are disappointed, if not unbelievably hateful and the player doesn't care -- in a lot of ways, it's the same ol' Queen City storyline.
"I've received all the criticism, hate, tweets, Facebook posts and shrugged it off," Maualuga said last year. "To concentrate on that would make me less of a player. If I'd let that stuff affect me I wouldn't have came back. Moving forward, I'm not focused on what they say here and there. It's a new season and everyone gets a fresh start. They can still talk. It will go in one ear and out the other."
C'mon. Everyone Googles themselves. Maybe it's one of those moments of "growth" that's generically referred to younger players -- especially players that aren't that great but you still nervously attach "potential" to.
"He takes everything very hard, takes everything to heart and sometimes that holds him back. We were talking about it today," former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer added around the same time last year. "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."
Zimmer, now in Minnesota, was very honest (and public) about his opinion on Maualuga. Saying that Maualuga needed to be team-oriented or adding that he would have an "OK" year. It often carried weight because while it wasn't glowing with Zimmer passion, it was enough cause to demand change... with a fisted hammer snapping the dinner table into two pieces.
Maualuga, who signed a two-year deal after a disastrous wild card showing in 2012, is entering a contract year. And as ESPN's Coley Harvey notes, the starting middle linebacker is facing the biggest battle of his career with Vincent Rey chomping at the bit.
Rey's 30 tackles, three sacks and one interception in those three games caught the fans' attention. Calls for him to take over the first-string "Mike" linebacker duties began and haven't ceased since, even as Rey starts camp as one of the top backups at all three linebacker positions. Those calls came at the same time Maualuga's production was waning. He finished with 47 fewer tackles in 2013 than he had in 2012, and miscues like his ill-timed personal foul penalty in the opener at Chicago last year combined to put him on the fans' bad side. That penalty ended any hope the Bengals had at putting together a final-minute comeback drive that might have won the game.
Whether it's Vincent Rey or the next undrafted free agent that Cincinnati is bound to find, it feels like Maualuga is on borrowed time. Either way, he intends to "fight".
"It's only due time until someone comes and takes my spot," Maualuga said via ESPN. "I'm going to put up a fight, though."