Bob Bratkowski, who has had a huge hand in drafting and developing two of the Bengals' top three receivers of all time, says the kids are going to be OK. There may be concern about the slow emergence of rookie wide receivers Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell, but guys like Bratkowski, the embattled offensive coordinator, and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick counsel patience.
As a coach's son, Bratkowski can't be worried about his own future with a franchise in which he has orchestrated the greatest passing, rushing and receiving seasons of all time during eight seen-it-all years.
"Anybody that goes into the same profession as their father, whether it's a plumber, stockbroker, insurance salesman, if you do anything your father did you know the ropes," Bratkowski said. "It comes with the territory. I was raised in this type of environment. It's short-lived and what have you done lately."
Lately, the numbers have done startlingly little. Dead last in the NFL in offense. On pace to score the third fewest points in team history and gain the fewest yards since the 1968 expansion team. The Bengals haven't scored a touchdown in 11 straight quarters.
More than 1,100 catches later you'd have to say they worked out, but so did other receivers the Bengals have drafted in the past eight years that ended up sitting behind Ocho Cinco and Houshmandzadeh.
The next draft pick, Kelley Washington, a third-rounder in 2003, caught 54 balls and seven touchdowns in his first two seasons before being eased out by another third-rounder, Chris Henry, in 2005. Before Henry imploded off the field, he caught 15 touchdown passes in his first two seasons. Another pick from 2005, sixth-rounder Tab Perry, had been ticketed to be a versatile sort that could swing between being a third receiver/H-Back type before injuries limited him to 10 catches in three seasons.
"We miss Tab," Bratkowski said. "He was starting to develop as a multi-use player for us. That was a setback for us."
If Maurice Mann, a fifth-rounder in 2004, and Bennie Brazell, a seventh-rounder in 2006, didn't make it (sixth-rounder Reggie McNeal in '06 was a converted quarterback), then when the scouts brought in Kevin Walter off the waiver wire the coaches developed him into a contributor for the '05 playoff team. When the team couldn't pay him sitting behind Washington and Henry, Walter moved to Houston and he's having a breakout season with five more catches than Ocho (55) and four more touchdowns (eight).
So there is some pedigree here. Still, Simpson, the second-rounder with just one catch, and Caldwell, the third-rounder with four, have Bengaldom worried.
Both have had to deal with injuries as well as playing behind some big-timers. When Ocho and Houshmandzadeh came in during '01, the only receiver with any experience was Darnay Scott. The Ocho, missing four games with a broken clavicle, had 28 catches as a rookie. Houshmandzadeh remembers making his 21 catches in three games.
"Nine against Pittsburgh, five (against Baltimore), six against Jacksonville," said Houshmandzadeh, who also had a catch against the Jets. "I was dressing because I was returning punts and kicks and when the games got out of hand I played late. Kind of like it's going now. I probably played about the same as Andre and more than Jerome. Anybody looking at it reasonably knows that one of them is going to be playing a lot next year and the other one is probably going to play something like 20 plays a game."
The conventional wisdom is that the 6-0, 204-pound Caldwell, out of Florida's passing game, is the one more comfortable in the pros right now. He's already been switched in and out of the slot and the club has been impressed with his raw speed.
"He's getting better every week," Bratkowski said. "We're looking at him to play with that speed before he gets the ball in his hands. One of the last things to come to a receiver is to use that speed initially all the way through the route because there are so many things. Coverage changes, blitz adjustments. He's making good strides. He's been moving around (positions), we're challenging him to do little bit more every week. He's handled it pretty well."
But Fitzpatrick has been throwing to Simpson since training camp because he sees a 6-2, 195-pound playmaker in the making. In the days leading up to the intrasquad scrimmage, Fitzpatrick kept letting Simpson know he was going to go to him and he did for some big plays. Until Houshmandzadeh's 46-yard catch-and-run against the Ravens on the last day of November, Simpson's leaping 42-yard jump ball in the preseason was the longest play of the year.
"I like his hands and how he jumps up and makes catches," Fitzpatrick said. "I think it's been a good thing for him to sit back and watch. It's hard to play as a rookie at any position, but there are so many things to learn at receiver and there are a lot of things he's raw at and needs to get better at, but he's willing to work at it. The big thing is he can make plays. With another season under his belt going against NFL corners and running routes and learning the system, he'll be able to step on the field and be a contributor."
Ask 10 people in and around the club about Simpson and you can get 10 different answers, ranging from he's the next Pro Bowler to his small-school pedigree at Coastal Carolina has put him into too much of a hole and the Bengals better draft another one. But Bratkowski is steadfast.
"He's got great athleticism, he can jump put of the building, he's got huge hands, he's got explosiveness," Bratkowski said. "He's just young and he's from a very, very small school."
It has been tough on Simpson because, like Ocho Cinco, he plays pretty much only the X spot. Plus, he was shelved for a month with an ankle injury suffered on his only catch in the Oct. 19 game against the Steelers. Simpson made his first NFL start last week in Ocho Cinco's place and The Ocho said he doesn't mind giving up a few plays to him. He's also not worried about Simpson's lack of polish because Ocho Cinco says he was about as raw coming out of junior college ball and a year at Oregon State.
But Bratkowski said, "Chad still had the Fiesta Bowl and playing Notre Dame and USC. Jerome never had that."
"He learned a lesson last week," Bratkowski said of Simpson. "He's getting more comfortable, but the only way Jerome is going to get better is to play."
For both Simpson and Caldwell, Bratkowski insists, "We feel good when we drafted them and what their future is."
And when it comes to his own future, the coach's son knows the future means only the next game plan.
"It's too early to worry about what will happen in three weeks," Bratkowski said. "This is Thursday. Then you get to Friday. And you keep going."
It was an implosion like this one that gave rise to Bratkowski after the 2000 season, when the Bengals scored a club-record low 185 points and head coach Dick LeBeau decided he needed not only a new quarterback but a new offensive coordinator. He tapped Bratkowski, a Steelers wide receivers coach who coordinated the NFL's leading pass offense in the mid-1990s with Seattle and two national championships at the University of Miami.
LeBeau had also played against Bratkowski's father back in the NFL day, a well-traveled backup quarterback named Zeke Bratkowski who became a respected NFL assistant.
"He started his coaching career in Chicago," said Bob Bratkowski, who was in high school at the time. "He'd been at a variety of places. He's just like any coach. He's been fired and rehired. I've seen it since I was a pup."
Coach's kids don't complain, so Bratkowski wont remind you that he had his healthy Pro Bowl quarterback for just two games, that his two Pro Bowl receivers missed virtually all of the spring and summer workouts, the backfield blew up on him on the eve of the regular season, and the new tight end kept getting hurt.
"It's not worth talking about any more," Bratkowski said. "The fact is we didn't get it done. Bottom line."
"It's fixable. It can get turned around very fast. There's got to be upgrades in some situations. You also have to go back to the work that accomplished it in the offseason," said Bratkowski, who says it's important for the veteran receivers to make it. "Who's here working out, dedicating themselves so the thing can get turned around. It certainly helps, not only in terms of working together, but the leadership to show there is a serious commitment to turn it around."
Until the last snap of the Kansas City game Dec. 28, he's got three more game plans and that's all that's on the mind of the coach's son.
"You can't worry about it," he said. "If you're worth your salt as a professional, you take care of the task at hand."