Bengals Go With Fit Over Formula And Mixon's The One

Joe Mixon is about more than numbers.
Joe Mixon is about more than numbers.

The analytic people, the good folks that brush their teeth with data and devalue running backs like some kind of 20th-century anachronism, can't measure something like this.

Joe Burrow, the Bengals rookie quarterback whose first NFL pass is now 10 days away, is reacting to the extension Joe Mixon signed earlier Wednesday and Mixon's hope he plays his entire career with Burrow.

"I was happy we were able to get that one done. I know he was very excited about it and you could tell the way he was acting at practice," says Burrow, breaking into a smile because all his teammates do when talking about Mixon.

"He's team first. You see it. He's genuinely happy when his teammates make big plays. I don't think it could have happened to a better guy. I want the same thing. I think we can do a lot of great things together."

Pro Football Focus, the popular Cincinnati-based website, cited on Wednesday that "since entering the league Mixon has averaged 2.8 yards after contact per carry, which ranks just 24th among players with at least 250 carries over that time. He fares slightly worse in terms of avoiding tackles from defenders, with his 100 broken tackles on 692 attempts ranking 31st over that time," the site said before concluding, "He is a good example of a player whose talent has been capped by the lack of help he has around him."

PFF may have a yard-after-contact category and broken tackles column. But we're still looking for their MVP box because despite the lack of help of help around him, Mixon kept the team afloat during the 2018 and 2019 seasons they didn't have their best offensive player, wide receiver A.J. Green, for basically all but eight games. There's no line for what his projected numbers can be with Green, Burrow and one left tackle instead of four.

There's no formula to figure this:

"Great locker room guy," Green says.

Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan grew up with analytics. He's sautéed spread sheets and pumped probabilities. But he also happily jawed a bit with Mixon on Wednesday as he bounced around practice as his want.

"I love Joe. Everybody loves Joe. The city loves Joe. He's fun to be around. He's contagious. And he's as talented as any back in the league," Callahan says. "His mouth is always moving and something is always coming out. Who it's directed at depends on the day."

Callahan reads all and so he's seen the stuff that wonders why a team would pay more than the franchise average of $10 million for a position such as running back that doesn't have its old clout. Only six backs average the $12 million Mixon receives. But he's also talked enough to Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin.

"There's a reason teams have people that do (analytics) and there's a whole niche culture that subscribes to those things. To say that they're wrong wouldn't be necessarily it," Callahan said. "I think every situation is different. Duke makes a solid comment. It's the player and the person. A lot of things go into that that aren't measured in data. The passion and leadership and those things a guy can bring to your team are a little harder to quantify. You have to see the analytics and trust the other things. I can't wait for Joe to carry the rock."

Here's a number. The Bengals are 5-0 when Mixon carries at least 20 times with Green on the field, something that has happened 0.0 times in the Zac Taylor era.

"Things," says assistant offensive line coach Ben Martin, "are a whole lot easier with No. 28."

There's no stat line for that. It just is. Martin and his boss, offensive line coach Jim Turner, may be co-chairmen of Mixon's fan club since he's the quintessential downhill back. They, Callahan and Taylor fixed the run game last season about halfway through as their personnel up front and situation evolved. Well, not so much fixed, but fit, giving it to Mixon more (he led the league in carries the last eight games) and not relying so much on those Todd Gurley wide zone runs from the Rams days.

Mixon is not the kind of guy that is going to pick and choose and hesitate and try to spread out the defense. Remember the year after Jeremy Hill got 1,000 yards and he wanted to be patient like Le'Veon Bell and he ended up being so patient that his yards per carry went from 5.1 to 3.6 in one season?

Mixon likes to get it and go. Quick hitters. Get in the hole and go. Tight zones. Running behind a line that pins and pulls. Let him tell you.

"I feel like being here, learning how to actually run the football in certain ways, getting to really learn down and distance, I feel like I became a lot better at that," Mixon said Wednesday in his first media appearance since getting The Bag. "Those are big things that are starting to move the chains. At Oklahoma, I was always looking for that big, explosive play. But really, those two or three yards, that means a lot going down the road.

"Two and three yards, that's what I have to learn in the league is all of that piles up. When you get after those two and three yards, usually it turns into five. Then it might go to one. Then it might go to 10. You just never know. Then you might break one. I think just learning how to be that runner that Cincinnati has basically been looking for."

Like Taylor says, every back is different. This one fits.

"He's at the core of what we do offensively," Callahan says.

There are the number crunchers and there are wise guys.

The number crunchers say, just get another back next year. Draft one from 2021's deep class or grab someone in a rich 2021 free agency that is going to be hurting because of the dip in salary cap. Save the money and give it to an offensive lineman or corner or one of those so-called premium positions.

The wise guys say that the back you want is already here. In the last draft of Bengals' legendary personnel director Pete Brown's life, he seethed when the Bengals didn't jump on Mixon in the second round and traded back and smiled when he was still there. Why keep up the chase? The wise guys ask.

The wise guys also say Burrow doesn't mind handing it off. He did it enough at LSU so that Tigers running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire book-ended the first round with him when the Chiefs too him at No. 32. And the wise guys say Mixon is Burrow's best pass protector and not because he picks up blitzes. Not only can Mixon carry it 20 times a game to take the heat off a rookie, he'll be there when Burrow is in trouble to make something out of a check-down pass.

And then there's this:

"What's not to like about Joe?" asks center Trey Hopkins. "Look at what he's done or us the last two years. He's earned every penny."

Mixon isn't carrying a torch for his position, he says. Carrying the ball is important enough.

"I'm not here to prove anybody wrong. I'm just trying to prove (the Bengals) right for why they paid me. That's what I do," Mixon said. "That's what I love to do. I'm here to play the game. I love the game, and I love being here as a Bengal. I love my teammates and just being able to have this opportunity, I've got to be able to produce so they get that narrative out of everybody's head, and just try to help the young guys and show them how it's supposed to be done."

There's no formula for this. When Mixon is out of the game, but not really, and is stalking Taylor on the sidelines. And Taylor loves it.

"I like guys that like football," Taylor said. "If you're asking me questions about the scheme and what's going on on the field, I'll never turn that away."

After he agreed to the deal Tuesday, there was a scene that conjured up images of the Chad Johnson days. After a drill, Mixon sat next to Bengals president Mike Brown in his golf cart. Mixon wanted to thank him and Brown wanted to counsel him.

"The first thing he told me was it is a great thing for you and make sure you take care of your money," Mixon recalled. "Make sure you put it in all the right places you need to. I know you've got a big family, take care of them, at the same time you have to be smart with it. At the same time, he valued me as a great player and he's definitely excited to have me over these next four or five years." 

It turns out one team's value can be another number crunched.

Where's the column for this? The selfie Elizabeth Blackburn snapped with Mixon, her mother and uncle after the deal was done? What's the factor of putting the smile on a franchise?

"(I've) never seen smiles so big on their faces. I think it was cool," Mixon said. "It's definitely a great moment, but I'm looking to bring an even bigger one and bringing a Super Bowl here possibly one day. That's what I'm here for and what I'm trying to do for them."

Fit that into a box.