Bengals wide receiver Andre Caldwell was just as confused as anybody after Sunday's 13-8 loss to the 49ers at Paul Brown Stadium in what was his 13th NFL start in four seasons.
He caught three balls on the first five snaps and four on the first two series, but just two more the rest of the way in finishing as the Bengals leading receiver with six catches for 53 yards.
"I'm not sure," Caldwell said. "They were sitting on us a little bit. It was hard to get open. You've got to put that fear in their heart by stretching the field a little bit."
After a brutal offensive performance in which quarterback Andy Dalton barely completed 50 percent of his passes (17-for-32) for just 157 yards and the Bengals failed to convert on third down nine out of 10 times, there was the classic second-guessing of new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.
Some outsiders thought he forced it by passing it nearly twice as much (32-19) in a field position game the Bengals led, 6-3, with 9:04 left. Others thought he played it too close to the vest. After Caldwell and A.J. Green, the other starting wide receiver, went back-to-back to catch balls of 14 and 18 yards, respectively, on the fifth and sixth plays of the game, the Bengals didn't get anything longer until tight end Jermaine Gresham's 22-yard catch on the Bengals' last desperate drive with 2:04 left.
And yet here's a guy who by all accounts has done a brilliant job getting this offense this far without any preseason work whatsoever saddled with rookies at key spots. And not only that, Gruden stood up in the locker room and took the blame as the media descended.
"I thought he called a good game," Caldwell said. "We've got to execute better. We have to do a better job when the plays are presented to us."
Green: "They had us down and we couldn't go deep on them that much because they were playing a lot of two-hot (coverage). I give credit to them."
Gruden took the blame for the performance, but Dalton said it was his fault the Bengals couldn't go vertical when he missed Green early deep working one-on-one.
"But they did a good job undercutting routes," Dalton said.
Dalton waited 15 quarters before throwing an NFL interception, but his first two were crushing and came within two minutes of each other in the last 3:54. The first one came when he tried to hit Caldwell on an out and cornerback Carlos Rogers ran the route before he did, proof that the 49ers knew the Bengals weren't going deep even that late in the game from their route-running.
"It was a two-man (coverage) and I ran an out route. He was there before I got there," Caldwell said. "I've got to do a better job of breaking it up."
But Caldwell does what he always does when he gets snaps. He's always trying to prove himself and he played well when pressed into service after wide receiver Jerome Simpson missed two practices as he undergoes a drug investigation.
Caldwell was ready on that first series. He may have been able to break that 14-yarder down the middle of the field for much more, but Dalton had to hurry the throw because of pressure and even though he was wide open Caldwell had to make a sliding catch.
His best move came on the next series when he powered out of Rogers' tackle for most of his eight yards and a first down.
"I see it as an opportunity," Caldwell said. "I'm trying to show the coaches I need to be on the field every down because I'm a playmaker."
First downs were a rarity. The Bengals only got one on third down, and that was to Gresham on a three-yard flip.
"It's hard to win in the NFL doing that," Caldwell said. "We have to keep practicing it."
He was the best playmaker the Bengals had Sunday. Head coach Marvin Lewis opted to start Caldwell in place of Simpson, but Simpson ended up playing frequently in three wide receiver formations on the outside with Caldwell sliding into the slot.
Simpson's one catch for six yards was greeted with a mixed reaction from the crowd. When Dalton tried to hit Simpson on a third-and-five fade from the Niners 5 early in the fourth quarter when he had one-on-one coverage, Dalton overthrew him, plus Simpson didn't get quite the release he needed to launch himself for one of his patented basketball grabs.
Caldwell and Simpson are close, together since they arrived in consecutive rounds of the '08 draft. But Caldwell gave him his space earlier in the week after published reports said Simpson was under investigation when 2.5 pounds of marijuana were delivered to his home and an ensuing search revealed six pounds. Caldwell wanted his shot, but he admitted it was a tough way to get it.
"That's a good friend of mine. I support him all the way," Caldwell said. "The next man has to step up and that's me."
Caldwell texted him a few times when Simpson missed the Wednesday and Thursday practices, but didn't talk to him until he surfaced at the facility Saturday.
"I told him I loved him like a brother of mine," Caldwell said. "I think he's doing OK. He's the same old Jerome as when he left."
Simpson didn't take questions after the game. The Bengals sent out a statement once Simpson was announced active:
"Jerome Simpson returned to team activities Friday afternoon and after evaluating his readiness, the coaching staff has determined he will be active for today's game. Jerome's legal situation with regards to events of the past week remains completely unresolved and the Bengals believe it is not appropriate to act on any presumption of what may transpire."
Lewis let it stand after the game when he said, "I've been advised not to talk about it."
Running back Cedric Benson, going through his own problems with a pending three-game suspension, didn't feel like the team was distracted by either controversy and he was one of the game captains.
"Guys go through things and sometimes make decisions that can affect not only them but teams as well," Benson said. "But everybody here is supportive. No man carries himself above the other. We've got a lot of support on this team and I think that's why we play so hard for one another. We all wanted to get a win. I don't think that took away from our focus and that's a big applaud to the guys to not allow it to be a distraction."