All you need to do is look at the difference between Jeremy Hill's rookie season and his sophomore season to see just how disappointing of a year 2015 was for the Bengals' running back. Then, when you think back to how the Bengals' season ended, the outlook is even worse.
Hill scored more touchdowns in 2015 (12) than in 2014 (9), but he totaled 794 yards rushing this season, despite rushing for almost double that in his rookie season (1,124) with less snaps and less games played. Hill only started eight games in 2014 and started 15 in 2015. The only reason he didn't start in all 16 in 2015 was due to sleeping through a team meeting before the 49ers game, causing him to get benched for the first quarter of that matchup.
On top of all of that, he capped off a disappointing season with one of the most devastating plays in franchise history. The Bengals looked like they were good enough to really accomplish something special throughout most of the 2015 season. They even looked as though they were finally on pace to break their playoff win drought of 25 years. The Bengals played the Steelers closely throughout the game, but a late touchdown pass to A.J. Green and an interception by Vontaze Burfict made it look like the deal was all but sealed. Then, the worst possible and highly unlikely scenario occurred.
That scenario was a quick turnover and a miracle Steelers drive to hit a field goal to win the game with seconds remaining. Jeremy Hill contributed to the first half of that nightmare scenario when he fumbled the ball with 1:36 left in the game. All the Bengals had to do was hang onto the ball and run down the field, but on his first opportunity, Hill fumbled. Ben Roethlisberger returned to the game after leaving earlier with an injury, and with some help from Burfict and Adam Jones, led the Steelers to get in range for the winning field goal. Thousands of Bengals fans around the world felt their hearts sink following Hill's fumble, but could it personally affect him long-term?
At the NFL Scouting Combine today, Bengals reporters caught up with new offensive coordinator Ken Zampese who said he's spoken with Hill and expressed he isn't concerned about his Wild Card fumble going forward.
Zampese said he's spoke with Jeremy Hill twice this season and is confident the RB will use playoff fumble as fuel to get better. #Bengals— Jay Morrison (@JayMorrisonCMG) February 24, 2016
Zampese says he’s talked twice with Jeremy Hill and heard exactly what he wanted to hear. "It’s about the response."— Paul Dehner Jr. (@pauldehnerjr) February 24, 2016
It's great to hear Zampese putting confidence into his players, but, just how realistic is it for Hill to completely move on and bounce back from, not just the one really bad play, but a whole season of disappointment? It won't be easy, but I agree with Zampese and believe Hill will bounce back after his sophomore slump.
If there is one thing that Hill is good at, it's proving the doubters wrong and succeeding anyway. We saw this in the draft and during his rookie season, and it would make sense to continue throughout his career.
In the 2014 draft, Hill was projected as a first round talent, but with some character, vision, and athleticism concerns, he fell to the second round. In his rookie season, he exhibited exactly zero of these concerns. On the field, he was known for regularly busting out big runs as well as averaging a staggering 5.1 yards per run.
Although issues with his character haven't arisen during his time with the Bengals, the issues with his athleticism and vision did make an impact in 2015. He averaged merely 3.6 yards per carry and was primarily useful for punching the football into the endzone following long drives. Issues with his athleticism probably didn't cause him to fumble against the Steelers, but not recognizing threats on his periphery likely helped the fumbling issue along.
Don't forget, as much praise as Hill received for his incredible 2014 season, fumbling was an issue for him then, too. He fumbled the ball five times in a total of eight starts in the 2014 regular season. That's more than one fumble every two games. He was much more secure with the ball in 2015, only fumbling the ball three times in 15 starts. Counting the postseason start and fumble, that's one fumble every four games. There's clear room for improvement there and the problem is, the issue came back to bite him in the worst possible way against the worst possible team in one of the worst possible situations.
It's not too difficult to imagine Hill bouncing back from that fumble, however, I'm not so sure if he'll "bounce back" from his overall fumbling issue, simply because it seems to be such a constant in his game. It's a situation similar to Cedric Benson, who was a steady and reliable running back, but his persistent fumbling issues ended up being his downfall. Hopefully, Hill can use his knack for proving his doubters wrong to improve this area of his game.