One year you're the toast of the town, and the next you're the goat. It's one of the cruel lessons of the NFL, and one Bengals running back Jeremy Hill is learning as he enters his third season. After a borderline NFL Rookie of the Year campaign in 2014, Hill is in Bengaldom's doghouse with a sophomore campaign marked by a 3.6 yards per carry average and four gigantic fumbles.
The last one he lost was a crusher to help lead to the Wild Card loss with the Bengals looking to secure a win with 1:36 left in the game against the hated Pittsburgh Steelers. In what can only be described as a microcosm of Marvin Lewis' previous six postseason losses, coupled with heartbreak akin to what Browns fans feel with the mentioning of Ernest Byner, the play is living in infamy. Hill is still feeling the weight of the gaffe more than five months later, but, as evidenced by a lengthy interview session with local media on Monday, he is prepared and motivated to bounce back in 2016.
"It's still the elephant in the room any time I walk in somewhere," the Bengals running back said via ESPN about the Wild Card fumble. "So you can't outrun it. You can't run away from that."
It isn't just the one postseason fumble causing many to doubt Hill's future, though. After rushing for an impressive 1,124 yards and 9 touchdowns at a 5.1 yards per carry clip in 2014, Hill had 330 less rushing yards with one more carry to his name in 2015. Two other massive fumbles early in the year against San Diego, and his inability to consistently break big gains like he did as a rookie are other issues he knows he has to clean up.
"There is no running from it," Hill said, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, per the Cincinnati Enquirer. "I embrace it. I embrace the challenge. I embrace the doubters, the negative, all that stuff. It’s great. It’s part of football. The great competitors, the great athletes all embrace it. I see myself as no different. I’m going to continue to embrace it every day, face it every day and wait for my opportunity to overcome that."
Hill sounds serious and it's the type of mindset the team and its fans want to hear for a rebound season. Luckily, Hill said he hasn't experienced the fan ire past players like Carson Palmer reportedly received from prior letdown performances. Still, there has been peripheral noise from other fan bases and the media, so aside from growing thick skin on his own, he's also leaned on an unlikely Bengals supporter in Hall of Fame running back, Marshall Faulk.
"Obviously when something like that happens they get the blame and you blame that person," Hill said. "I get it. That’s the business. That’s how it works. I’m totally fine accepting that and I embrace that. For me, it’s going to help me this offseason because once you have the season I had and that moment at the end of that season it can only go up from there. That’s how I’m looking at it and how it will be. If anything it motivated me as a player and will continue to help me for the rest of my career."
Some who are a bit more cynical might point to Hill's extravagant in-game celebrations as an area to clean up in his quest for redemption in 2016. But, it's the swagger and fun-natured ribbing at the opposition's expense that made Hill an up-and-coming NFL star as a rookie, so maybe getting back to simply having fun when expectations are a bit lower is the key to a renaissance.
"I know who I am as a runner and as an athlete and as a player. I definitely can't let that play define me," Hill concluded. Most others aren't sure exactly what kind of an NFL player he is, given the two extremes in many key stats in as many pro seasons. While the offense might need to lean on the running game a bit more in 2016 because of the losses of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, if Hill limits his fumbles and splits the difference in production from 2014 to 2015, it will be a welcomed improvement.