It was a quick screen that turned out to be the biggest play of last Sunday's 19-17 victory over the Browns and reminded the Bengals just how fast and versatile wide receiver Andre Caldwell can be as he ran their fastest 53-yard dash of the season.
That's just it. They wish one of the fastest players at the 2008 scouting combine would be able to translate that speed more consistently into the elements of the game.
It is also a quick screen that Caldwell re-clicked through so many times on the computer screen in the offseason. From nearly a year to the day. Dec. 20, 2009. Qualcomm Stadium. San Diego. Final two minutes. The Bengals are driving for the winning touchdown and the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. On a play from the Chargers 24 quarterback Carson Palmer hits Caldwell on a quick screen. But safety Eric Weddle gets his helmet on the ball and punches it back 20 yards before Palmer chases it down at the San Diego 45.
Somehow, Palmer regroups the offense and gets a tying field goal with 54 seconds left. Somehow the Chargers win it on a 52-yard field-goal at the gun.
Now the Chargers are back for Sunday's 4:05 p.m. Paul Brown Stadium 2010 finale and it is a big game for Caldwell in so many ways. He gets his second start at Terrell Owens' flanker spot as he bids to show the Bengals that he can play on the outside and do more than play the slot. And he plays against his brother Reche's old team that drafted him in the second round. The team that popped out the ball.
"It popped in my mind the other day. I want a little revenge," Caldwell said before Wednesday's practice. "I had a key fumble late in the game. I just want to make up for it. There's no better time to do it. I looked at it a lot and I finally get my (second) start of the year against them. I just want to show it's a new year and a new Andre ... I love this. My brother played there. I know a lot of the guys. I've been around them a lot. I just want to go out there and show them the little brother can do a lot of stuff, too."
It looks like everything is going to be new next season at wide receiver. No one expects Owens to be back and no one expects the Bengals to exercise the $6 million option on Chad Ochocinco. Although Ochocinco is hobbled by bone spurs in his ankle, the plan had been despite the injury to get the untried Jerome Simpson more snaps at The Ocho's X spot.
"That was the plan, that's how we had it going in," said wide receivers coach Mike Sheppard. "There wasn't any 'because Chad is hurt let's play him more.' The plan was to play Jerome more than a couple plays. Chad was in for the plays Chad needed to be in for."
The receiver spot is a microcosm of this team. The head coach doesn't have a contract for next season, but then, neither does the NFL have one with the NFL Players Association. If the next collective bargaining agreement has rules like this one, 13 regulars won't have contracts for next season.
Asked if the Bengals can win with Caldwell and Simpson, Sheppard was cautious.
"I think with continued improvement that you can," Sheppard said. "I think they have got to improve and show the consistency and ability to make great plays that some of the others before them have done consistently. "
One thing the Bengals do know: Caldwell is smart, tough and fast, and he's got one year left on the rookie deal he signed as a third-round pick out of Florida in 2008. And he works hard enough that when he returned for the spring workouts head coach Marvin Lewis called him the team's most improved player. A quarterback who dominated the Florida high school scene, Caldwell flashed some Wildcat capabilities in another PBS finale two years ago, and he plays all three receiver spots.
But he fell off the radar when the Bengals drafted Jordan Shipley to play his slot position and also signed Owens at the start of training camp.
The challenge with Caldwell has always been to try and get him to play football with that same straight-ahead 4.3-second 40-yard dash. Sheppard loves the guy because he does whatever is asked. When Caldwell walked in for rookie camp, Sheppard wanted him lighter and the next day Caldwell was on the treadmill.
"Same thing this year," Sheppard said. "I told him, 'You've got to go full speed every single time you come off the ball.' That's all he does. You watch him in practice. He is anxious on blocks, on run plays and on pass plays. He gets off the ball. That's important to him."
What's also important is getting consistent snaps. After a spectacular start last season replacing T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the slot with last-minute winning touchdown catches against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Caldwell hit a wall late in the year. The Bengals tried to revive him a bit, at times, by putting Laveranues Coles in the slot and Caldwell outside. Sheppard loved the fact he didn't pout then, and now he gets a chance to see what he can do against the top-flight Chargers cornerbacks on outside routes.
"I think he's on the way to being that," Sheppard said. "He just needs to do everything more consistent. He's on the way and I'm excited for him ... he hasn't had a chance to get on the field. He's prepared for this and showed up pretty good."
Caldwell is anxious to show he can play the outside.
"It's a little different. Most of the time the corners are a little better, but I like it because that's where a lot of the big plays come," he said. "Down the field, use my speed to stretch it out and make big plays."
But there's no question he ended up in the doghouse with his two critical fumbles late last season that cost the Bengals dearly in the playoff seeding. His fumbled kickoff in the last minute handed Oakland a win and a month later in San Diego the botched screen cost them the touchdown on a drive that could have killed the clock.
In the offseason Caldwell focused intently on ball security. He knows he can't play without it.
"I'm a lot tighter with it. I hold it upright. I watched a lot of Tiki Barber," Caldwell said. "He had fumbling problems back in the day. Later he really didn't fumble at all, so I 'm using the techniques he'd been using. He held the ball up tight, up close (to the chest) so there's no air or space you can even get your hand on it. Last year I had it out front, a lot of it flying around, a lot of space for them to get a hit on it."
Caldwell has been patient. After his rookie season, he watched the Bengals sign Coles. Then after his second season when he became the slot receiver, he watched them draft the slot receiver of the future in Shipley and then sign free-agent outside guys in Owens and Antonio Bryant. Now Coles and Bryant are long gone, Owens is hurt, and he's still here.
"I'm going into this with that mindset. This is my time to prove I can play outside and try to lock down that position and let them know they need to look no farther than me," Caldwell said. "They've looked at a lot of guys before me. I'm just trying to show them this is my time, I have to lock down that position and they don't have to look any farther."
He has The Ocho's backing. Ochocinco crinkles his nose and shakes his head when he talks about Caldwell's speed.
"Track guy," The Ocho said.
Caldwell knows what's in play. The Ocho may not be notcho here.
"It could be a completely different wide receiver corps next year," Caldwell said. "I think we've got a lot of young guys who want to go out there and prove themselves and step up there. We're just hungry and do whatever it takes. Now I want to solidify it. Let them know this is my position and I'm here to stay, and not be in and out and falling back. I just want to be on top."