Posted: 12 a.m.
Once upon a time in the last home game of the year, a rookie wide receiver named T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who had 12 catches all year caught nine to help fuel an overtime victory over the Steelers.
Fast forward to two days shy of seven years to that day and that brings it to Sunday in another Paul Brown Stadium finale and another rookie receiver. Andre Caldwell, who had seven touches all season, had nine in a breakout 83-yard game with five catches and four runs working out of four different positions in the 16-6 win over the Chiefs.
"I see myself as being one of those guys that can come in here and make plays," Caldwell said after literally reversing his fortunes. "I think my time is now. Only time will tell, but I'm going to prepare like I'm a starter."
Whether that means the Bengals can now contemplate life without both of them is anyone's guess.
But what they do know is that, although Chris Henry put together some key catches in the last three games, Caldwell showed off his 4.3 speed and 200-pound physicality Sunday and showed why he's the future and it is right now.
"Of course I'm a little curious; that plays a big part in my role next year," Caldwell said of the guys ahead of him. "But, that's not my main focus. I'm just getting ready for next year and working hard in the offseason."
With the Chiefs next to last in defense with a two-gap front line and fast linebackers that tend to over pursue, the Bengals set the tone on their first play when quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick pitched to running back Cedric Benson and then helped block for Caldwell coming the other way on a 17-yard reverse.
"We got him the ball early, whether it was a reverse or a pass," Houshmandzadeh said. "Any receiver will tell you: When you get the ball early, regardless if you touch it again, you're always into the game because they got you the ball. And I thought he did really well with the reverse to open up the game. He got 20 yards. He played really well."
Then came what Houshmandzadeh called "The P-Dub" play. On the first snap from the Cincinnati 13 and the Bengals leading, 3-0, early in the second quarter, Caldwell got hemmed in on an end-around on the left side. He put on the brakes and screeched past the other way for a 26-yarder in which he flat outran everybody. That was the first play of Cincinnati's only touchdown drive.
"I saw those guys running real hard to the left," Caldwell said. "I saw a little opening to the right, so I cut it back and used my speed to get across the field."
The gathered media was surprised that Caldwell had never taken a direct snap in Florida's cutting edge offense even though he had proudly played quarterback his senior year at Tampa's Thomas Jefferson High School. He led them to the state title game with a combined 2,200 yards.
"Maybe one, but I can't remember," he said of his college experience. "I like the direct snap. I didn't get many yards, but I liked that. I want to be back there at quarterback some time. You know you're going to make a play. I'm pretty comfortable back there."
Which meant quarterback was one of four positions he played Sunday because he played all three receiver spots, a la Housh.
"Andre did what we've said all year," said quarterback Carson Palmer. "Any time he's been in there, he's made plays."
Although Caldwell was taken a round later than teammate Jerome Simpson in the third round, his SEC polish has trumped Simpson in the development game. Simpson was active but didn't play for the third straight game since struggling against the Colts earlier in the month.
"I don't think the stage is too big. I think the SEC and the Florida coaches prepared me well," Caldwell said. "They got me ready for the NFL, and I'm out there strong, and when I get the ball I'm ready."
Caldwell has praised The Ocho and Houshmandzadeh for teaching how to prepare for the opponent via film study. He got another boost when he got a look at the game plan early in the week that had his fingerprints all over it in order to take advantage of the Chiefs' pursuit.
"I was very excited when I looked at the game plan," he said. "It made me work a little harder, prepare myself a little better."
Caldwell may not have the white-hot confidence of Houshmandzadeh. But he simmers on low boil. He knows this month has been an audition, particularly the last two weeks with The Ocho and Houshmandzadeh shelved.
"I feel when I touch the ball, I can make a lot of plays and they gave it to me today and I made some plays and showed them that," Caldwell said. "A lot of it was in the game plan today early. We worked on it a lot in practice and we worked it to perfection today. We made some plays out of it."
Houshmandzadeh nodded. Everyone has to come out some time.
"He did really well," Houshmandzadeh said.