Running back Jeremy Hill could have walked into the offseason with most of Bengals.com's hardware.
The first Bengal to ever have three rushes of at least 60 yards in the same season could have been Most Valuable Player. He could have been Rookie of the Year. Even the Good Guy of the Year (if we had one) since he fashioned a season-long rookie diary for the web site that finishes later this month at NFL Honors the day before the Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz.
But we gave him Offensive Player of the Year because the Bengals rode his rushing to a 5-2 finish that shoved them into the playoffs despite the loss of key weapons for quarterback Andy Dalton's passing game.
He became the Bengals' version of Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, saving his best stuff for last.
His 60-yard TD came in the fourth quarter of a 10-point win over Jacksonville. His 62-yard run on what looked to be the last play of the first half in New Orleans turned into a big-time 42-yard field goal at the gun that made it 13-3 on the way to a 17-point win. His 30-yard run with 2:41 left and a 19-13 Bengals lead in Houston put them in clinching field-goal range.
"I love the fourth quarter," Hill said in one of his diary selections. "I think that's what I take pride in my game and I think that's where my game can flourish the most. I'm a bigger back. That's where I bite my teeth down and just try to get it. That's the way I've always been. Even throughout high school. I just try to get those tough yards. I really like that."
The 6-1, 238-pound Hill, a throwback to the Bengals' big-back roots, helped them survive stretches without backfield mate Giovani Bernard and four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, as well as the season-long absences of starting wide receiver Marvin Jones and starting tight end Tyler Eifert, with 720 yards in the final seven games with four touchdowns.
While leading the NFL in rushing during that stretch, he joined Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson and Curtis Martin as the only rookies with at least four games of at least 140 yards and Paul Robinson as the only Bengals rookie to have at least two games of 150 yards in the Nixon's The One autumn of 1968. While channeling all-time franchise rusher Corey Dillon's blend of power and speed, Hill became the first Bengals' 1,000-yard rookie rusher since Dillon in 1997 with 1,124.
More importantly, the Bengals were 6-1 in games he carried at least 15 times. The only loss came in the AFC North title game in the regular-season finale, the Bengals' first 100-yard rushing game against the Steelers in ten years. In that same 5-2 stretch, Green caught 660 yards and three TDs.
"He's dynamic. He's a good runner with great vision," Dillon himself said last month. "That's the No. 1 attribute you have to have because if you're not able to see what is going to happen, it doesn't matter how big or fast you are. If you're telling me he's 230 pounds that surprises. He doesn't look that big."
When Hill was drafted in the second round back with pick No. 55 in May, a segment of the populace didn't think he was as big or as good as local product Carlos Hyde, pick No. 57 to San Francisco. In 14 games, Hyde looked promising enough to replace Frank Gore at some point, but his 333 yards were miles away this year as Hill led all NFL rookie rushers.
"If you go back when we drafted him there were a lot of people questioning why we took him over certain people,' says running backs coach Kyle Caskey. "We kept telling people this guy has the 'It' factor. He's run our offense. He came in and fit in right with what we were doing.
"The type of down-hill runner he is really showed up as he started playing more. And he started getting into a groove and he started feeling out the speed of NFL defenses. It doesn't matter where you play college. The speed is so much greater at this level. It takes a few times through to really start feeling how these linebackers are playing and where the blocks develop. And he came on towards the end of the year and started to get a feel for our offensive line."
Hill says his apprenticeship under LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron gave him a lift in the pros. Cameron is a big reason why the Bengals were attracted to Hill since he's a coaching colleague of Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
"We even ran some of the same plays we run here," Hill says. "It was a big factor because it helped me with the transition of college offense to NFL offense. The learning curve wasn't big for me."
But Hill had to prove one thing to them before he got more carries.
"His biggest adjustment coming out was pass protection. I say it. Hue says it. Marvin (Lewis) says it. If you don't pass block, you won't play," Caskey says. "If we had a question physically with Jeremy, it was the way he attacked pass protection and the way he took on defenders when they were running full speed at him. It wasn't anything about schemes, but he really became more physical and took ownership of pass protection. He embraced that role and he got a lot better."
Hill woke up the echoes of the big backs when he saluted Ickey Woods (another 1,000 rookie Bengal) with the Ickey Shuffle after one of his touchdowns ("I appreciate the young man," said Woods, who advised Hill to slow down his Shuffle) and he raised some eyebrows when he jumped to a Bengals fan in the Dawg Pound after scoring a TD in Cleveland.
But the effervescent Hill showed the proper humility as he and Bernard dealt with the workload. In the past, Bengals backs have been vocal when they feel they didn't get enough work. Not these guys.
"I never wanted to be a distraction. I never wanted to be a guy that asked for the ball," Hill says. "I just want to be a guy to help the team win."It's almost comical watching those together when they're not on the field," Caskey says of Bernard and Hill. "Because they really are good friends. They joke with each other and help each other out. They really push each other."
He could have been anything in 2014.
Even Good Guy.
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