Joe Mixon went into the offseason with 96 gutty yards in Baltimore.
There are more questions than answers on the Bengals offense these days, but there is one absolute (besides Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard) that has emerged this offseason and crystalized at last week's NFL scouting combine.
For the second straight year, Mixon was the talk of the combine even though he was all the way across the country in his native Bay Area. This time the discussion was limited to his team talking about the expanded role he assumed in the middle of his rookie season and now takes day one this spring.
Not just lead running back, but playmaker.
"Joe really came on for us in the later part of the year, second half of the season. He's going to be our bell cow running back," is how director of player personnel Duke Tobin opened the combine. "We are going to combine him with Gio and we really feel good about that position group."
In his first offseason crafting scheme and organizing what is basically a new staff, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has been leering at the tape of Mixon. There he is gutting out 96 yards on a gimpy ankle in the season finale. Not to mention the 34 yards before he got knocked out of the second Pittsburgh game with a concussion on just his seventh carry. And the 67-yard ramble off a catch-and-run vs. the Colts. Lazor can't wait to implement all of it.
"I think in the long run, my prediction is someday we're going to say yeah, this guy can do it all," Lazor said. "He can pass protect, he can run, he can catch the ball. He's a guy I think we're going to be happy with as he keeps going."
That's pretty direct from a coaching staff, led by the reticent Marvin Lewis, that is secretly rebuilding the worst running game in team history. And, still, Mixon found a way to hammer 3.5 yards per carry despite hampered by part-time status the first part of the season and an overwhelmed offensive line much of the year.
"A lot of rookies just fade away at the end of the year because they're not used to the long season," said running backs coach Kyle Caskey. "But the thing with Joe is he got stronger and had his best performances late in the season."
The more and more reps Mixon got with the offensive line, Caskey saw, the better and better he got.
"I think Joe can be better. I've had a chance to go back and watch how he played," Lazor said. "I think we were excited as the season went on his advancement, his development. A couple of the injury things probably paused it at times, but I expect him to just catch right back up. And it'll even accelerate. "
It has to if the Bengals are going to get anywhere. Just look at the NFL's top five rushers and six of the top eight last season. Led by a rookie from Mixon's class, the Chiefs' Kareem Hunt, all gained at least 1,040 yards and their teams went to the postseason. The last time the Bengals had a 1,000-yard rusher was in 2014, when rookie Jeremy Hill offset the loss of wide receiver Marvin Jones (no snaps) and tight end Tyler Eifert (nine snaps) to win ten games.
Bill Lazor: show him the yards per carry.
The last time the Bengals went four years between 1,000-yard rushers, the seasons between Harold Green and Corey Dillon from 1993-96 netted 21 wins. These six post-season 1,000-yard rushers averaged 18 carries a game, a mark Bengals rushers have reached just 10 times in the past two seasons. Those 18 carries work out to 288 carries in a season, a mark the Bengals last reached in 2010 when Cedric Benson lugged it 321 times on a team with Chad Johnson catching 67 balls and Terrell Owens 72 more on a team that went 4-12.
So the carries are there. But the Bengals don't have to run it that much and Lazor's only commitment is to scoring points. Yet clearly running the ball with Mixon is at the center of the revival. Lewis indicated last week that the major characteristic of the overhaul is how the running game fits with the rest of the offense. And if there is one stat Lazor has been obsessed with this offseason, it's not RPOs, but yards per rush.
"There's a level of detail to the run game that just takes repetition," Lazor said. "Some of the runs, I don't know if the right word is complicated or advanced , maybe there were things (Mixon) hadn't done as much in college and early in the season there was a difference. As the season went on, you could see he understood exactly where he fit. During the season I remember hearing how he met with the line a little bit. It has to be together. They all have to be the same."
Lazor has made it a point to form a close working relationship with new offensive line coach Frank Pollack, beginning with the Senior Bowl practices where they'd sit next to each other during the individual lineman drills. It continued last week at the combine with several hours of meetings.
"You've got to set the tone as the line coach and how we run the football, the style of runs," Lazor said. "Frank and I yesterday probably spent four or five hours and today spent a couple hours for the line coach and the coordinator to sit together and just talk through the runs, the pass protections, what are the adjustments, what are the calls, how do we see it, how do we define it. It takes time. But I need him to do that. We need him to take the lead in a lot of those areas. I think everyone is going to be excited that Frank's here. I think what he's done coaching is a proven track record at this point when you look at the stats."
That's what Mixon is walking back into and Caskey thinks he'll flourish.
"Joe Mixon can do whatever you ask Joe Mixon to do," Caskey said. "You can use whatever scheme you want. He just needs the time to get the repetition and timing with the line."
This gallery features photos of current Bengals players at past NFL Combines (AP Photos)