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Revisionist History: Reviewing the Bengals' decision on Andrew Hawkins

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The Cincinnati Bengals had an unexpected, yet critical decision to make on a crafty wide receiver in the offseason leading up to the 2014 season. A fan favorite left for a division rival, now, we look at the impact of the decision almost two years later.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

One of the beautiful things about the NFL is the stories that surround some of its players. Whether it's a star rising out of poverty or terrible life circumstances, a player who has largely struggled but found redemption in a tumultuous career, or an unlikely contributor fighting against stereotypes to make a name for himself, feel-good tales are plentiful in the NFL.

The latter applies to Andrew Hawkins, a small receiver who went undrafted, but found a way to live out his dream of playing professional sports. After seeing his older brother, Artrell, get drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round of the 1998 NFL Draft as a cornerback out of the University of Cincinnati, "Baby Hawk" wanted to follow in his brother's footsteps.

Like his older brother, Andrew wanted to play in the NFL, and played college ball in the state of Ohio himself. He attended the University of Toledo, not necessarily known as a "football factory", but still hoped his skill set would entice NFL scouts enough to overlook his small 5'7" frame. After going undrafted a decade after his brother was taken by the hometown Bengals, "Baby Hawk" decided to go play for the Canadian Football League with the hope that he would get noticed enough to earn an NFL contract.

As fate would have it, Hawkins found an opportunity in the unlikeliest of venues: reality television. Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin hosted a show on Spike TV called "4th and Long". The show gave long shots an opportunity to compete in various trials to earn a tryout with NFL teams. "Baby Hawk" made it to the final episode, but didn't win the contest.

Nevertheless, he caught the attention of Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis. Obviously familiar and still tied to Artrell, they were made aware of his skills from the show and his older brother, likely having grabbed the ears of the franchise. After a stint with the Rams in 2011 after the show, the Bengals signed Hawkins off waivers in August of 2011 amidst Lewis' most recent re-build of the Bengals' roster.

Fate intervened again in the form of injury, with 2010 third round pick Jordan Shipley suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 of the 2011 season against the Denver Broncos. Shipley never played for the Bengals again while Hawkins contributed for Cincinnati over the next three seasons.

After a pretty solid 2012 season when being a secondary and/or tertiary option in the Bengals' offense, Hawkins began to grab a little bit of fame--both because of his background and his play on the field. He was one of the team's chronicled players on HBO's Hard Knocks documentary, especially gaining attention for a severe ankle injury he sustained in Training Camp. He went on short-term Injured/Reserve and came back for the final eight games, while the Bengals thought they would have him for the foreseeable future.

However, NFL desperation can cause a franchise to reach. In a ploy to both hurt a division rival and grab a talented receiving weapon to aid whoever they would have under center, the Cleveland Browns signed Hawkins to a lucrative offer sheet. They were able to do so because of Hawkins' contract structure, allowing the Bengals to sign him as an exclusive-rights free agent. Of course, Cincinnati had a chance to match or better the four-year, $13.6 million contract, including a $3.8 million signing bonus, but with A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones on the roster ahead of him, it didn't make financial sense--especially for a guy relegated to No. 4 receiving duties and other gadget formations.

Some Bengals fans were up in arms by Baby Hawk's departure, citing the lack of a receiver with track star speed and a creative option in an offense that needed a speedster to help a young quarterback. Others noted the size of the contract and realized it just wasn't in the cards for the Bengals, even with their annual surplus of salary cap space. No matter what opinions were, a good guy who produced when able while carrying a fun story was moving on to a division rival.

With the Bengals facing the Browns for the second time in 2015 and Hawkins sitting out the third of four games against the Bengals since, his background still comes into focus. Was it the right move?

The Stats:

Team Years Receptions Rec. Yards Rec. TDs Games Played Team Wins Team Losses
CIN 3 86 995 4 35 19.5 5.5
CLE 2 90 1,100 2 23 9 18

Obviously, respective stats in different categories point in different directions. While a complementary player in the Bengals' offense, he still cracked the end zone more frequently than he has in Cleveland. A variety of factors are culpable here, including more steady quarterback play and a more talented Bengals roster to bolster his production. The Browns paid Hawkins to have a bigger role with them, and though he had a productive 2014 (career-high 824 receiving yards, along with two touchdowns), it isn't translating to wins in the creative fashion he contributed to W's with the Bengals.

Part of the hope in the Browns' signing of Baby Hawk was in his potential ability to make Cincinnati pay for letting him walk. As mentioned above, Hawkins has/will have only played in one of four eligible games against the Bengals in his almost-two seasons with the Browns. His lone game netted two catches for seven yards in Johnny Manziel's first professional start in Cleveland late last year.

Some players get the unfair tag of being "injury-prone". Hawkins has fallen in that category because of a myriad of issues plaguing him in his five seasons as a pro. As an NFL slot receiver, issues like the concussion he's dealing with now, are sadly prevalent. Even borderline Hall of Fame wideout Wes Welker probably can't count how many he's had over the years, as unfortunate as that is.

The stigma has stuck with Hawkins more so than others because of his slight stature, though. A 5'7", 180-pound receiver just can't consistently take the beating much larger defensive players inflict on players at his position.

A Gruden Guy or a Jackson Guy?:

When organizational shifts occur in any company, personnel is likely to change. While there are similarities between the respective creative offenses supplied to the Bengals by Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson, there are noticeable differences. The biggest and most recent is the utilization of the tight end, but Gruden also like to use Hawkins as his Swiss Army Knife.

Shovel passes, runs and yards-after-the-catch routes were the norm for Hawkins as an outlet for Andy Dalton when things would break down. More often than not, it would be effective because of Hawkins' ability to escape tacklers in the open field. When Gruden left for the head coaching gig that opened up with the Washington Redskins, Hawkins may not have been looked at in the same favor by Jackson as he had by the team's prior offensive coordinator.

The seasoned coach likely wanted Hawkins in his array of offensive weaponry, but the amount of use he would employ would not warrant the price tag the Browns were willing to pay. Jackson likely saw similar abilities out of running backs Giovani Bernard and Rex Burkhead, along with the different approach with tight end Tyler Eifert and convinced the team to go in another direction.

In the time since Hawkins left, Bernard has 79 catches and two receiving touchdowns, while Burkhead has another 14 grabs. Meanwhile, Eifert is on pace for a Pro Bowl 2015 campaign with 12 touchdowns in 11 games.

The Verdict:

It's hard to say it is a one-sided gain for either side. The Bengals have benefitted from a great roster windfall with Hawkins' departure, while the Browns made a move they needed to make to bolster an offense that has largely struggled since their 1999 league inception. Hawkins isn't a touchdown machine, but he is a play-maker capable of moving the chains with exciting plays. Speed is one of the few things you can't coach and Baby Hawk has the coveted attribute.

Wins are the ultimate prize for NFL teams, and as far as that goes, Cincinnati has the upper hand. You can't help but think about the possibilities of Cincinnati's chances last year against the Colts if they had a healthy Hawkins in the offense in the wake of so many injuries on that side of the ball, but that is all conjecture at this point.

Both teams have had their wins and losses in Hawkins' move to Cleveland. Cincinnati has other, similarly shifty players on the roster, but none they employ regularly at wide receiver. The Browns saw a productive 2014 campaign from Hawkins, but injuries have once again derailed another season and the team has as many combined wins in almost two seasons with him, as the Bengals do without him in 2015.