The late Demaryius Thomas' brilliant career in Denver is a reason Ja'Marr Chase is having one of the best seasons by a rookie wide receiver in NFL history in Cincinnati.
It just so happens that Chase tries to expand on his 1,035 yards (17th best by a rookie since the 1970 merger) and 10 touchdowns (tied for fifth) Sunday when the Bengals travel to Thomas' old stomping grounds a Mile High Sunday (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) barely a week after his sudden death at age 33.
At his Wednesday news conference when offensive coordinator Brian Callahan started to reminisce about Thomas, he couldn't get through the first sentence before quietly surrendering to grief.
You have to understand that Callahan got his start in the league as an assistant coach in Denver the same year the Broncos drafted Thomas in the first round out of Georgia Tech in 2010. They were together six seasons as Callahan moved through three different titles on offense for the Broncos. Together they celebrated a Super Bowl title before Callahan moved on to the Lions for a bigger gig.
"DT was one of my favorite players I've ever been around," Callahan texted Tuesday night. "He was a fantastic player. Everything you'd ever want in a receiver. Smart, physical, big and fast. Unselfish."
Later Wednesday, Callahan talked about the impact of watching Thomas team up with wide receivers Eric Decker and Wes Welker with quarterback Peyton Manning nearing the end. Then when the Broncos basically traded Decker for Emmanuel Sanders in free agency and Welker was gone, Thomas and Sanders each caught more than 100 balls in the Super Bowl championship season of 2015 for the aging and beat-up Manning.
So, when the Bengals began talking about drafting Chase with the fifth pick this spring out of LSU, Callahan used those Broncos days as a reference point. He could see how Chase would fit with a two-time 1,000-yard slot receiver in Tyler Boyd and another receiver, Tee Higgins, who the year before came within 92 yards of beating Chase as the 20th rookie receiver to hit 1,000 yards since the merger.
Callahan's argument, one of many to head coach Zac Taylor surrounding the fifth pick and two other options in Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell and Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, is that he saw how multiple outside threats could win huge games.
"We had three receivers in Denver and that was a model of having three guys that could win outside one-on-one," Callahan said. "Not having one, but two or three guys like that really helps an offense.
"We already had Tee and TB is a steady factor, so the idea of adding someone of Ja'Marr's capabilities, in my mind, was a no-brainer because if you've got guys who can win one-on-one these days in the NFL, a passing league, and you've got three of those guys, you can do good things on offense."
Demaryius Thomas' Broncos were proof of that, he felt. Even two. A game that sticks out for Callahan is a late November Sunday night game in 2015 when the 8-2 Broncos stunned the 10-0 Patriots. Trailing, 21-17, with one play before the two-minute warning, the Broncos appeared to have no shot with back-up quarterback Brock Osweiler.
Until he suddenly hit Thomas for 36 yards deep. Then two snaps after the two-minute warning, Sanders got deep for 39 yards. The Broncos took the lead three plays later with 1:09 left before winning in overtime.
"When it's time to go win, you have to beat one-on-one," Callahan said. "I believe in that mantra."
Enough people agreed with Callahan that Chase was a no-brain and 60 catches at 17.3 yards per catch and 10 touchdowns is hard to quibble with at any point. Chase is just 158 yards from moving into the top five for greatest rookie receiver seasons and he's on pace (1,353) for the third best rookie season behind only his LSU buddy Justin Jefferson's 1,400 yards and Anquan Boldin's 1,377. It would also be the sixth best Bengals season.
What he would love to break is Randy Moss' merger era rookie record of 17 touchdowns. At this pace, 13 would tie Tyler Eifert for the second most receiving touchdowns in Bengals history.
"He been phenomenal. He's everything you could have hoped for," Callahan said. "He's been the catalyst for our offense. He's been a great complement to Tee, Tyler C.J. (Uzomah), Joe Mixon. All these guys have helped our offense in the run game and the pass game. It's all part of it. To have that dynamic ability at receiver, to me, is how you put together a really good offense."
This season has proven his point. No other NFL team has three wide receivers with at least 55 catches. With defenses clouding out Chase as of late, Higgins goes into Sunday's game as the first Bengal with three straight 100-yard games in eight years.
"You can't double everyone. If someone is going to get clouded, someone else is going to be open," Callahan said. "That's the idea. You've got a bunch of guys with really good distribution that reflects that. When someone is covered, someone else is open."
According to Pro Football Focus, Chase is tied for the NFL lead with nine drops. But he's in pretty good company. Deebo Samuel and Tyreek Hill.
"The production," Callahan said, "far outweighs the drops."
LAST CALL: Callahan had an excellent explanation of why the Bengals' last play from scrimmage in overtime was a coverage sack of quarterback Joe Burrow.
"(The 49ers) took away both of them," Callahan said of Chase and Higgins. "They played a version of 2-Tampa. Four man rush, kind of a simulated pressure and then they played invert coverage to the single receiver side which is not something they had done all year long. Just an unscouted look and a good look on their part.
"We had anticipated pressure. They had brought one earlier on that drive and they ended up bringing the nickel off the front side so we were in a seven man protection. They had rolled to a coverage that didn't play out the same way earlier, it was a blitz they had run earlier in the game, but the way they ended up covering it versus the route that we had on, they took away the underneath route that we thought we would have, which caused Joe to hold the ball and by then the pressure had gotten there"
YES, JESSIE KNOWS: At the end of Sunday's regulation, after the Bengals had just tied it at 20, free safety Jessie Bates III had the ball in his hands with about 30 seconds left with what may have been a pick-six. At the very least, an interception that would have set up a last-snap field goal to win it.
"People say it's a 24-hour rule but I still haven't gotten over it kind of," Bates said before Wednesday's practice. "I've probably seen the play probably 100 times now. It's very frustrating, honestly. I did everything right to make that play. I hung on my hash and I knew exactly what was coming. I put it away a little too early. I didn't catch it first. It's very frustrating at a very critical part of the game. But we've got four opportunities left and I think I'll have a couple more of those opportunities to make and I'll make them."
He thinks he could have scored. Maybe.
"No one knows. Only God knows," Bates said. "But yeah, I think I would have had a chance the only guys there were (49ers tight end George) Kittle and (Bengals strong safety) Vonn (Bell), but like I said, you never know."
INJURY UPDATE: A slew of guys rested Wednesday, but they figure to play Sunday and that includes Burrow (finger) as well as cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (foot), right end Trey Hendrickson (back) and nose tackle D.J. Reader (resting the quad he tore last season).
But middle linebacker Logan Wilson (shoulder) has been ruled out with the hope he can play the next week against the Ravens. Right tackle Riley Reiff (ankle) is doubtful.
Four players were ill, didn't test positive for COVID and were sent home: starting center Trey Hopkins, his backup, Trey Hill, long snapper Clark Harris, and Isaiah Prince. Reiff's backup. The league figures to be ramping up their COVID protocols sooner rather than later. Head coach Zac Taylor may beat them to it.
"They all tested negative. But again, you see what's going on around the league," Taylor said of his ill players. "We have to be careful with what we're doing. So they won't be at practice today for that reason. Some of them feel better than others. Some of them feel worse than others. But I think we've got to be smart here these next couple of days and weeks here about how we meet. Those aren't things that we've totally nailed down yet but certainly we've talked more about it today than any day."
That means more spacing in the meeting rooms and maybe more meetings over Zoom.
"In the team meeting, we spoke about (staying safe) this morning. I've always been really impressed over the last two years with how they've handled it," Taylor said. "If we've asked them to do something, they've really done it without complaint, at least to my ears. Again, it's always uncomfortable and a little bit of a pain, but we all know it's for the right reasons."