So much of the Jerome Simpson story doesn't get any traction in the celebrity NFL because it is just flat out hard work. From both Simpson and his coaches.
In the wake of his breakout game Sunday with 124 yards after a career of one-yard, one-catch until two weeks ago, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and wide receivers coach Mike Sheppard pointed to the work of an anonymous offensive assistant that works in the coaching boiler room at Paul Brown Stadium.
David Lippincott, a jack of all trades who helps Sheppard on the field as well assists offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski off it, politely declined an interview Monday. First of all, he's prepping for Sunday's game in Baltimore. Second, protocol is the position coach talks about the player.
"Dave has spent a lot of time with Jerome," Lewis said Monday. "From training camp, out late, out early, whatever it is, trying to set things up visually all the time for Jerome, and he continues to do it now. Every Monday and Tuesday if Jerome doesn't do it, I check with David to make sure Jerome's getting it done. I think it's important for a young player."
Lippincott has spent Mondays and Tuesdays with Simpson getting him ready for the week of assignments. It was that difficulty coping with the assignments that kept Simpson off the field and not the talent. Coming from Division II Coastal Carolina, even the simplest of NFL coverages proved complex. The biggest improvement has come there, so much that Simpson is now able to move around a bit at all three spots and the coaches didn't have to pare down the Chargers game plan for him.
Sheppard thinks that Lippincott's background as a defensive coach at such colleges as Richmond and Minnesota has aided his ability to get through to Simpson.
"I think the learning is from a different angle and it's healthy," Sheppard said. "Start out knowing what they're thinking and then you're talking about what you're doing, it makes a little more sense. For those guys who came up without a lot of that, that knowledge it has to be healthy.
"David deserves plenty of credit for Jerome and his success because he spent a great deal of individual time with him and Marvin's direction. All the times that we're in meetings and game-planning David's had some opportunities to meet and try to speed up Jerome's development. It's been good from all perspectives for us and him. It tells you a little bit about him as a person wanting to improve and put his time where his mouth is and commit to learning and being better and it's paid off for him. It's made it easier when he walks in the room and has a jump on everything."
Why did it take Simpson this long to play?
Drafted in the second round in 2008 with a bevy of physical skills in the midst of Chad Ochocinco's trade-me-or-trade-me rant and Chris Henry's dismissal, Simpson has always had a lot support from management. On Monday, Lewis alluded to Bengals president Mike Brown's frustration at Simpson not getting on the field when he noted that among those watching Simpson's practice exploits was "my boss."
But while Brown hoped Simpson would get some kind of shot, the coaches simply didn't trust him enough to line up or run to the right spot. When he ran a route that led to a Ryan Fitzpatrick interception in December of his rookie year at Indianapolis, Simpson was even deeper in the doghouse.
Throw into the mix that Simpson was playing behind a six-time Pro Bowler because he only played The Ocho's X spot in an effort to focus his learning on one position, and there was no shot
"His background wasn't the same as some of the guys that come in here, and a lot of this is new to him," Lewis said. "Sometimes, it takes guys a little bit longer. He's got things he can do that we can't coach, and he's special that way. It's taken time to get him out there to get him out there where we know that we're not going to have a real negative play. We just keep working with him. The quarterback is going to have a trust in those guys being in the right spots because he's letting the ball go – it's not like you go stand there and wait on the ball. The ball is getting let go. Sometimes the quarterback is under a little duress too, so the ball has to be let go on time."
When Henry suffered a season-ending broken arm midway through the 2009 season, Simpson still couldn't be one of the active five receivers on game day. The first three receivers were set: The Ocho and Laveranues Coles were the established starters and Andre Caldwell was the slot guy that could play all three spots. Quan Cosby was a core special teams player that returned punts and occasionally kicks. Maurice Purify was more physical on special teams and in the run game.
This year, it was even tougher to dent the active list. The Bengals felt they needed someone to replace Coles and Antonio Bryant when Bryant came up lame and that's when Terrell Owens surfaced, along with slot receiver Jordan Shipley in the third round.
"We don't get to suit them all up on Sundays," Lewis said. "We have Quan, who's just given us great snaps – great snaps as a returner, he's making tackles on the kickoff team, he's a backup on our punt team, and he's the off-returner on the kickoff, so everything he does, he's playing a legitimate role. Jordan's been in on third downs, and Andre can back up all the spots, so Jerome's kind of been the odd man out and the extra guy.
"If I ever had the opportunity to suit up six guys (receivers), if we've been healthy in another spot, it's always been Jerome, just because he can do some things that would help the offense all the time, and you want to see him get chances to play. The more he plays, the better he's going to be, the more comfortable he would be. I remember going back two seasons ago when he was a rookie playing Pittsburgh here, and he first got a chance to suit up. He's been suited up at times this year, and we've had plays designed for him. It didn't work out quite like it did (Sunday)."
One of the reasons the Bengals special teams have been so improved under Lewis is that he works all week at developing a Sunday active list that tries to satisfy most of coach Darrin Simmons' needs. It's a difficult chore when injuries get figured into the mix and many times the casualty has been Simpson and some of the special packages designed for him.
"All the time, you are robbing Peter to pay Paul, and you have to hold your breath somewhere else," Lewis said. "We only suited up four receivers (Sunday) because I wanted eight offensive linemen. So, it's a little different because we had an injury somewhere else (tight tackle Dennis Roland) and I was trying to take care of that.
"So we've been going with less defensive backs, going with an extra linebacker. We play 3-4 (defensive alignment) teams in our division, which means they have more linebackers suited up every week. We have to block linebackers with linebackers (on special teams). You can't block linebackers with receivers. That's the other thing I think people don't quite understand, in the special teams area you get your head beat in because you are out there with skinnier, lighter guys all the time."
In the end, it took an injury to the X receiver to get Simpson on the field. Even before Ochocinco hurt his ankle, the Bengals' poor record, The Ocho's shaky 2011 status, and the desire to get some kind of look at Simpson dictated that Simpson at least rotate at the X with the Ocho sitting out on some snaps.
"That way it was easier, we are going to build a package in regular because we'll have (fullback) Chris Pressley up and we'll have Jerome and Terrell in there and we built a package that way," Lewis said. "That way, as you're sitting up with your game plan sheet, your call sheet and you list the plays and how they come off the sheet, it is easier to figure out and understand, rather than, 'Is Jerome in or Jerome out?' Because now, we have all the deal at the huddle and the quarterback has to sort through it and it makes his job tough."
But Simpson's improvement made it easier to make the move. Sheppard has seen it much of this year.
"I think it's been gradual from everyone's perspective," he said. "What caught my eye more than anything before now are the plays he's made in practice before this year. In previous years it's been flashes. This year it has been weekly, daily have you seen that. We have to find a way to get him on the field."
And because he has absorbed his assignments better, Simpson has been able to do more things.
"We've moved him around a little bit more than I thought we might," said Sheppard of the three spots. "I've quizzed him from day one and he'll show you the best quiz of the group. It isn't a matter of learning it; it's processing it from the huddle to the line of scrimmage with a certain amount of time. There was a point there where he became sure. He could do it in here but then get in a two-minute offense and now it was, 'Which side am I on, which route do I have?' I know that the approach we've taken with him has helped him. He plays without thinking. Now it's a matter of him continuing to learn and work hard at it. From the day he got here, the minute the passes were off the presses to pick them up and study them.
"The one thing we have done is limit him back to just know 'This,' and know the plays for what we have him do from elsewhere rather than the whole offense from elsewhere."