Shock. Anger. Sadness. These are just a few of the emotions many of us felt when Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier ripped the ball out of Jeremy Hill's arms with less than two minutes left in the Wild Card game. But perhaps the strongest emotion was... confusion. There was no reason to fight for extra yards. What was he doing?
Clearly, Hill felt similarly bad. He beat himself up (literally) on the sideline afterwards. And on Monday he emphasized that he embraced his mistake and would use it as motivation to get better. So is it time for Bengals fans to move on? We debate this in the video below:
It would have been easier to forgive Hill had the fumble occurred after his spectacular rookie year (1,124 yards, 5.1 yards per carry, 9 TDs). But when combined with his overall struggles in the regular season (3.6 yards per carry, 3 lost fumbles), it might be hard to see why he deserves another shot as the featured back.
Hill's poor regular season can be chalked up to a lot of different things, from blocking, to playcalling to simply having a sophomore slump. But the good news is, all of those issues might be resolved next season.
Despite the departure of Andre Smith, the offensive line could actually improve with Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi in their second years. Christian Westerman may even be ready to contribute this season and step in for Russell Bodine at some point in time. Tyler Eifert's blocking is slowly improving, and along with sophomore tight end Tyler Kroft, he should be able to compensate for the run blocking the team lost after Jermaine Gresham signed with the Arizona Cardinals a year ago.
Hue Jackson's trick plays will probably be significantly reduced in the playbook. And the departures of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu mean the running game will be emphasized even more. So Cincinnati can now get back to AFC North football and give Hill the touches he needs.
As Ace Boogie, a regular caller on "Sorry If I Spit When I Speak," pointed out in the video above, Hill's big games in 2014 came with 20 or more touches. He had four such games that year, averaging 140.2 yards and 5.79 yards per carry in those contests. Meanwhile, Hill only had one game with 20 touches last year. Of course, he may not have gotten as many opportunities in 2015 because Giovani Bernard was the more effective back. But the point is, Hill is the type of player who needs to know he's getting the ball. Plus, with more touches, he's more likely to be able to wear down a defense late in the game. However, to get the ball, he needs to earn it.
With Hill, the problems are not physical. He's still only 23, and has not had any major injuries. The problem, rather, is mental. After two lost fumbles against the San Diego Chargers in week two last season, Hill's confidence just was not the same. The team reduced his workload, and he was more hesitant to hit holes when he did get touches. Now he has nothing to lose, as he knows that if he struggles, Bernard will become the go-to back permanently. And Hill clearly wants, more than ever, to earn Cincinnati's trust.
I expect Hill to regain his focus, the coaches' support, and the fans' adulation in 2016. He stormed onto the scene his rookie year in part due to character concerns that may have impacted his draft stock. Hill was appreciative of the opportunity the Bengals gave him, and it showed in his play. Well, take whatever motivation he had in 2014 and double it.
As great as Bernard is, it is Hill who gives the Bengals the most realistic chance of fielding a championship offense. In the cold, harsh conditions of late season football, Hill's size and physicality is the perfect complement to a ballhawking, bone crunching Marvin Lewis defense. His north-south running will be needed to protect leads and will help quarterback Andy Dalton on playaction passes as the team adjusts to the losses of Jones and Sanu. Hill, his team and the city of Cincinnati need him to rebound in the worst way. And I believe he will do just that.