Pessimists fixed their sights on Paul Brown Stadium at about this time last summer, salivating at the prospect of the dreaded sophomore slump for one of the NFL's newest marquee duos; Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and his favorite target, wide receiver A.J. Green.
The sophomore slump made its rounds to several NFL clubs in 2012, but Dalton and Green escaped unscathed.
As the duo begins final preparations for training camp 2013, pessimists and optimists alike have worn out phrases like "next step" and "elite." Opinions range, speculation rages. How fitting that Cincinnati opens its season in Chicago, home to the Bulls and Bears.
Call it "The Jump."
The much-talked about transition from a player's second to third season. It so happens that Andy Dalton and A.J. Green—hitched together, of course—fall squarely under that very microscope this season.
In a two-part Bengals.com series, we'll set speculation aside and look at what history can teach us about The Jump. How have players in similar situations performed in the past? What factors led to their conquests or struggles?
In Part I, we'll focus on the third seasons of a few of Green's predecessors—other high-profile wide receivers who contributed significantly early in their careers—and consider their (few) triumphs and (many) speed bumps when dealing with The Jump.
CALVIN JOHNSON, Detroit Lions (2009)
As the rebranded Lions regrouped from their infamous 0-16 season of 2008, the team quickly ushered in a new quarterback, rookie No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford of Georgia. Although they showed a few hints of promise, it didn't so much show in their record, as the young Lions finished 2009 with a 2-14 record.
Injuries plagued both Johnson (14 games) and Stafford (10) for much of the season, but still it was clear that first-year head coach Jim Schwartz had the team headed in a new direction. The excitable offense showed spurts throughout the season, like Johnson's six catches for 123 yards in a 23-13 loss at Cincinnati that included a 54-yard TD from Stafford.
Ultimately, though, Johnson failed to even approach the numbers from his second season. Down from year two to three were his receptions (78-67), as well as the number of times he was targeted (150-137). Among the biggest dropoffs, though, were his receiving yardage (1331-984) and TDs (12-5).
While injuries and a young supporting cast were much to blame for Johnson's dropoff, so too was the offense's inability to find a consistent second receiving option. After Johnson, running back Kevin Smith (41), and wide receivers Bryant Johnson (35) and Dennis Northcutt (35) were the next three highest producers.
Also inconsistent was the running game, as Smith (13 games) battled injuries and led the team with totals of 217 rushes for 747 yards for 3.4 yards per carry and four TDs.
ANDRE JOHNSON, Houston Texans (2005)
For the first time in his career injuries got the best of Johnson as a nagging calf limited him to just 13 games. It certainly slowed his production with receiving totals that were the lowest of his 10-year career, except the '07 and '11 seasons when injuries limited him to just nine and seven games, respectively.
For wins-and-losses, 2005 was also the worst season of Johnson's career. The Texans won just two games, spelling the end of coach Dom Capers's four-year stint with the expansion team and leading to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft that turned out to be defensive end Mario Williams.
Problem No. 1 for the offense was protecting quarterback David Carr, sacked 68 times. Next was the rushing game. While future Texans star Arian Foster was struggling with fumbles at the University of Tennessee, Houston sported a rather pedestrian running back stable of Domanick Davis (230 rushes for 976 yards) and Jonathan Wells (90-for-325).
Though Jabar Gaffney, the team's second-leading receiver, did manage 55 receptions for 492 yards, the team struggled to find other consistent options at wideout. For a team that spent most of the season playing from behind, its grand total of 270 completions were considered unspectacular.
Johnson's 2005 stat line—due in part to the calf injury—was uncharacteristic of what everyone has now come to expect. His receptions dipped to 63 in 2005, down from 79 the previous season. His receiving yardage also fell from 71.4 yards per game in 2004 to 52.9 in '05, and his yards-per-reception average dropped from 14.46 to 10.92. He managed only two TDs, down four from the previous season and tied for the lowest season total of his career.
LARRY FITZGERALD, Arizona Cardinals (2006)
For many, the first thing that comes to mind when discussing the Cardinals 2006 season is the now-famous "they are who we thought they were" sound bite from Cardinals head coach Dennis Green after his team's Oct. 16 loss to the then-undefeated Chicago Bears.
Perhaps the presence of Fitzgerald could have made a difference in that game, one of three he missed with a hamstring injury.
This was supposed to be the year that the Cardinals transitioned toward rookie quarterback Matt Leinart and away from veteran Kurt Warner. After a 1-3 start with Warner as the starter, the switch was made. While impressive at times, Leinart's growing pains were evident, going 4-7 as a starter as the team finished a disappointing 5-11.
As for Fitzgerald, 2006 stands as one of only three times in his nine-year career that he did not break the 1,000-yard barrier. The other two were his rookie season in '04 and a difficult '12 season.
Receiving options were not at all a problem for the Cardinals. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin led the team in catches (83) and receiving yardage (1203), while wide receiver Bryant Johnson contributed a 40-for-740 receiving effort. The team also had running back Edgerrin James, considered one of the NFL's all-time top receiving threats out of the backfield.
Fitzgerald, who missed the first three games of his career, saw his numbers suffer, even while granting leeway for the missed time. He was targeted only 111 times, down from 165 the previous season. Down also were his receptions (103 to 69), receiving yardage (1,409 to 946) and receiving TDs (10 to 6).
RANDY MOSS, Minnesota Vikings (2000)
The 2000 Vikings were considered by many to be one of the NFL's top teams, but they were ousted 41-0 by the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game. Second-year quarterback Daunte Culpepper saw his first full season of NFL action, while veteran running back Robert Smith played his final season.
Though the supremely-talented Moss grabbed most of the headlines, it was veteran receiver Cris Carter who actually led the team in receptions, with 96. For his NFL swan song, Smith gained 1,521 yards on 295 rushes (5.2-yard average), with seven touchdowns. With Culpepper, Moss, Carter and Smith, the Vikings had no shortage of firepower, as they developed into one of the league's most exciting offenses.
Although Carter had the edge in receptions, Moss dominated every other receiving category en route to an All-Pro season. Down slightly was his receptions total, from 80 in 1999 to 77 in 2000, but up was his receiving yardage (1,413 to 1,437), yards per catch average (17.7 to 18.7) and receiving touchdowns (11 to 15).
Whereas other elite receivers struggled with injuries in their third seasons, Moss started every game, playoffs included. Whereas other receivers dipped in production, Moss continued his ascent toward what would become a Hall of Fame career.
JERRY RICE, San Francisco 49ers (1987)
The defending NFL champion 49ers raced to a 13-2 record (one game canceled due to the players strike), only to fall to Minnesota in the divisional round of the playoffs. What most remember about San Francisco's 1987 season, though, is Jerry Rice's single-season NFL record of 22 touchdown catches.
But Rice fell one reception short of running back Roger Craig (66) for the team's receptions lead. Other than Rice and Craig, no other 49er had more than 30 receptions. Don't let that stat fool you though, because quarterback Joe Montana distributed passes to 22 different San Francisco players on the season. By comparison, 13 different Bengals caught a pass last season.
Bolstered by Rice, Montana in 1987 posted a 102.1 passer rating, with a career-high 31 touchdown passes. The running game did not feature a marquee performer – Craig was the team's leading rusher (215 carries, 815 yards and three TDs) but 17 players combined for 2,237 rushing yards on the season.
Due to his receiving touchdowns record (broken in 2007 by Moss's 23), many consider Rice's 1987 season as one of the greatest by a receiver in NFL history. He did, however, decline in all other categories.
His receptions total dropped from 86 the previous season to 65 in '87. Rice would not go lower than 65 receptions in a full season (aside from an injury-shortened 1997 season) again until 2003 as a member of the Oakland Raiders (63).
His receiving yardage total also dipped significantly, dropping from 1,570 to 1,078. His receiving yardage would not again drop below that mark (save 1997) until the 1999 season with 830 yards.
His yards-per-catch average dropped off, going from 18.3 to 16.6 and 1.5 yards lower than any of the averages in his first five seasons.
At first glance, some might think 1987 was a relative down year for Rice ... until they saw the stat line for touchdowns.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
As the Bengals air attack looks to realize its potential in 2013, much of the burden figures to lie on the effectiveness of Green. But as history shows, there's no such thing as linear improvement when it comes to the NFL's most elite receivers. Roadblocks often stand in the way. A number of factors have figured into receivers' success, or lack thereof, in Year 3.
Of the many problems that plagued the above receivers in their third seasons, injuries has been the most common denominator. Simple and cliché as it may seem, staying healthy is clearly priority No. 1 if Green's production is to continue this season.
The Bengals appear to have taken steps to cover the next few items on the checklist.
First, a lack of surrounding offensive options seemed to hinder several receivers. Over the last two years, the Bengals have focused on bringing in more offensive talent to lessen the burden on Green. For example, eight of the team's draft selections over the last two seasons—20 total selections—were spent on offensive "skill players."
Perhaps the most negatively affected area—save Rice and Moss—was touchdown receptions. The touchdown reception totals for Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson and Fitzgerald fell by an average of five (53.8 percent) in Year 3.
If that dramatic decline was a result of defenses keying on the superstar receivers, the Bengals may well have incorporated that into the master plan as well.
A majority of offensive touchdowns are of course scored in the red zone – inside an opponent's 20-yard line. The careful construction of Green's offensive surroundings has yielded a number of players who historically—in college or the NFL—have specialized inside the 20. Want to take Green away in the red zone? Expect a dose of rookie tight end Tyler Eifert, wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and halfback BenJarvus Green-Ellis, all of whom have enjoyed particular success inside the red zone.
On paper, an effective plan seems to have been set squarely into place. The Bengals appear to have controlled all that they can to this point, but the "next step" begins in late July on the banks of the Ohio River, when that plan is put into motion.
Now (again), calling all skeptics.