The year is now 2021, but hindsight is still 20/20 for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Hindsight analysis is common when it comes to discussing John Ross III. Those conversations amplified this past season.
Ross entered his fourth year in the NFL with more subdued expectations in comparison to previous years. He quietly had seven touchdowns in 2018, his healthiest season to date, and racked up 328 receiving yards in the first four games of the 2019 season before injuries found a way to sideline him yet again.
Those years were the building blocks for an important contract year for Ross. No longer was he expected to become worth the ninth-overall pick he was drafted as back in 2017. To be an effective complementary piece in a promising offense was all he was tasked of becoming.
Once again, things did not go as plan.
Distressing news hit Ross in the middle of training camp as COVID-19 infected the mother of his young son and the child himself. He left Cincinnati to help take care of them in his hometown of Long Beach, California and did not return until a week later.
That leave of absence did not remove Ross from the Week 1 starting lineup, though. Ross was out there along with A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd for Joe Burrow’s first-career game. He hauled in a clutch first-down conversion on what was supposed to be the game-winning drive against the Los Angeles Chargers. He was an afterthought for most of the game, but that play provided a much-needed sign of life. The wheels would unfortunately fall off completely just a few days later.
Ross had two passes thrown his way in Week 2’s loss to the Cleveland Browns and he didn’t catch either of them. Ross and Burrow looked out of sync for both of his targets, and questions of effort and instinct began to arise with the 25-year old receiver. To make matters worse for him, a young rookie named Tee Higgins was itching for more playing time and he officially emerged as a legitimate option during that same game.
This was the beginning of the end for Ross. He was benched for Higgins following Week 2 and would only play one more snap for the remainder of the year. The team consistently listed him with an “illness” on several weekly injury reports, but that was essentially a cover-up for the team making him a healthy scratch. Ross was demoted, and with Higgins thriving, he had no chance of taking back his spot.
As the trade deadline approached, Ross wanted out. He reportedly said as much to the club leading up to Week 7. The team either didn’t want to deal him, or couldn’t find a deal worth taking as the deadline passed. Ross would continue to watch from the sidelines as the team underperformed and then miraculously won a couple games after Burrow had his knee torn up.
Ross wasn’t drafted by this coaching staff, and honestly, it’s hard to believe the previous coaching staff was ever enamored with him either. Former head coach Marvin Lewis clearly wasn’t generous in handling Ross’ development as a rookie. Not all players can revive their career successfully after being put through tough situations on top of injuries piling up.
This is why Ross wanted a fresh start in the middle of last season. If his once promising future is to become a reality, it won’t be in Cincinnati. Two coaching staffs and two quarterbacks weren’t enough to make it happen for Ross. Maybe there’s another team out there who can.
Ross will surely be searching for that once free agency begins later this month.