The theme of the week is how the Bengals may have lost three straight, but they've found that ever-elusive offensive identity in the process as they head into Sunday's 1 p.m. game against the Dolphins at Paul Brown Stadium.
And a big reason is because they've identified quarterback Carson Palmer's next-generation-go-to guy in the resourceful rookie in the slot, wide receiver Jordan Shipley. After racking up their biggest three-game yardage total in four years with 1,240, it's pretty clear the Bengals are most comfortable running and passing out of the three-receiver set rather than the heavy formations they used to pound to the AFC North title last season.
Shipley already seems to have that same telepathic connection with Palmer that T.J. Houshmandzadeh had. If the Bengals opt for double tight ends, or a regular formation, Shipley is off the field and that hasn't been a good thing in the early going because three receivers are the staple of the no-huddle, the no-huddle has been Cincinnati's most effective set, and Shipley and Terrell Owens have been its biggest stars.
When Palmer led the Bengals to 1,318 yards from Nov. 12-26, 2006 in a loss to San Diego and blowout wins (what are those?) over New Orleans and Cleveland, The Ocho had a 200-yard game and two 100-yard games while Houshmandzadeh roamed the slot for 16 catches and Chris Henry had three touchdowns.
"It changes the style of what you're doing; you don't end up being quite as smashmouth," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski of three receivers. "You're giving up something to get something. What you're hoping is you can get a lead on someone, wear them down a little bit in the no-huddle and when you have to go in and run the ball to finish off a game, you can get into whatever your featured run formation is that week and go get them."
With 21, Shipley already has as many catches as Houshmandzadeh had his rookie season. With 321 yards, Shipley is a nine-yard catch away from having more yards than Chad Ochocinco and Carl Pickens had in their rookie seasons. Since they are the top three receivers in Bengals history, it might be fair to say that the Bengals third-round pick is off to a rather good start.
Last Sunday's 131-yard effort on six catches in Atlanta was the biggest day by a Bengals rookie receiver since Darnay Scott went for 157 against Seattle in 1994 and it put Shipley on pace to have the second-best rookie receiving season in club history next to Cris Collinsworth's 1981 Sports Illustrated cover shot of 67 catches and 1,009 yards.
Shipley, who'll get plenty of chances wriggling in the slot between The Ocho and Owens, projects to 63 catches for 963 yards.
"I'm very blessed coming into this situation with a great quarterback and those two guys and Jermaine (Gresham) have been really good to play with," Shipley said before Thursday's practice. "(Defenses) have to respect those two guys. That's been good for me."
Yes, Shipley was 10 when Owens broke into the NFL and while he does remember him paying in his first stop for San Francisco, he says "I was too little" to remember Owens playing in his own rookie year of 1996 with 35 catches for 520 yards.
But Shipley will always remember his first NFL touchdown in Atlanta, a 64-yard run-and-bolt, because it came moments after Owens scored his 150th career touchdown. Owens then provided the final block inside the five-yard line to get Shipley No. 1 and the rookie not only thanked him on the field, but sent him a text message later that night to put it in writing. Owens can't remember how he responded, but Shipley does.
"He said something like, 'No problem, man,' " Shipley recalled. "That's one thing about him: He wants to win really bad."
Owens knew what Shipley did at Texas ("Who is this guy here?" he asked himself), but it didn't register he was with him until he heard The Ocho's first interview at training camp and he referenced the rookies Shipley and Gresham.
"If you look at his production and numbers he put up at Texas, it shows you that he can play," Owens said. "To come in here in this system and be able to pick it up and play the way he has it's been phenomenal."
Bratkowski's system hasn't been easy for rookies. In his nine previous seasons as coordinator, the best a rookie did before Shipley was Henry's 31 catches and 422 yards. On his current pace, Shipley would threaten those numbers at the halfway mark in two weeks. Palmer knows just how hard that is.
"He's knowledgeable about our system already, and that's one thing you don't see a lot of rookies grasp, and he grasped it right away," Palmer said.
Bratkowski has always listed the three biggest obstacles facing rookie receivers as such:
"The speed of the game and the quality of the guys you're going against and the complexity of the coverages compared to what you see in college. It's just so much faster and more complex."
Even The Ocho mentioned how fast Shipley has picked up the offense and says, "We're better with him."
But Shipley isn't an average rookie. He's older than most (he turns 25 in December) because he had so many injuries early in college, and he grew up living and breathing Friday Night Lights as the son of a high school and college coach in football-mad Texas. Sure, he played in a big-time atmosphere at Texas, not to mention a big-time offense that featured plenty of no-huddle.
But if you want to know why Shipley has adjusted so quickly to the NFL, go into wide receivers coach Mike Sheppard's room about 5:30 p.m. Thursday.
"We'd been done with the players for about a half-hour and he stuck his head and asked about a protection and how he should react to it," Sheppard said. "He's got a notebook that he keeps on all the DBs that he faces and he's in here every off day filling up his iPad with video. We've got a lot of guys that do that, but for a rookie…"
Shipley flashed his maturity in that play leading to a 64-yard-catch-and-run touchdown that had the sideline murmuring about his breakaway speed. Somehow he appeared in the middle of the field, making himself wide-open available against a blitz. If you want to know how well Palmer and Shipley are clicking, listen to head coach Marvin Lewis chuckle in his press conference video from Wednesday when told Palmer said it was "a busted play." He doesn't want to give away any secrets about how the blitz was diagnosed so quickly and deadly.
"It's not a busted play; it was a nice job by Carson and Jordan, but it was not a busted play. It's exactly the way it was supposed to work," Lewis said with a smile. "He got on a guy that wasn't as athletic as him, and that is where the bust came."
Palmer saw this stuff on film from Texas, and wasn't shy about lobbying for Shipley before the draft after he took a gander. Sheppard remembered one play in the spring workouts when Shipley read an option route seamlessly and took off upfield. Palmer, as Sheppard remembered it, simply said to Bratkowski, "Oooh. Whoa."
"(It) was a busted play and he just made a play on it," Palmer said of the TD. "He can do everything you ask a guy on the field to do. There's not one or two things you kind of worry about if we get in a certain situation. He can play in two-minute; he can play on third down; he can play in some of our bigger personnel groups, so he's just a really good all-around football player that understands the game and understands his role within this game."
The Ocho, for one, wasn't surprised at Shipley's speed. "We're all fast," he says, and certainly Shipley wasn't. He was running in Texas state schoolboy sprint championships when Owens was finishing up in San Francisco. But he can understand why people here might have raised an eyebrow or two. He thinks the rest he got when he missed a game with a concussion followed by the bye week really helped.
"That's probably the first time I've been out in the open as a Bengal. Usually in the slot, you're catching the ball and taking a shot," Shipley said. "It was fun to get out in the open and run. My legs have kind of been rested. It's the first time since last season that I've had to rest my legs."
Now if he's got enough legs, Shipley can take a shot at Rookie of the Year. It's a bit odd, but the only rookie wide receiver with more catches than Shipley is Tampa Bay's Mike Williams, and he's got a seven-catch lead on Shipley.
It was Williams who fried the Bengals on seven catches for 99 yards and the tying touchdown in the one game Shipley missed.