In a roller-coaster ride that only the NFL can offer, Bengals rookie wide receiver Andrew Hawkins has gone from obscure transaction to cute little story to key ingredient in the AFC North race when the Bengals play the Browns this Sunday (1 p.m.-WLW-AM 700) at Paul Brown Stadium.
Cleveland has its issues on defense, but the Browns can cover on the back end, where they are ranked first in the league against the pass and are eighth best in preventing touchdowns in the red zone.
Although it is looking more and more like No. 1 receiver A.J. Green is going to play, Bengals wide receivers coach James Urban is looking for all the help he can get in the slot.
"We need that short area quickness and explosion," Urban said after Wednesday's practice. "This team plays a ton of man coverage and they have to be able to separate. Both he and (Andre) Caldwell in the inside."
You could have won a lot of money back in August that first week of Bengals training camp when the club picked up Hawkins after he'd been cut by the Rams and put a bet down that the former CFL speedster would have more catches than Chad Ochocinco heading into Thanksgiving Weekend.
The 5-7, 180-pound Hawkins, as much a factor on special teams as he is as a clutch fourth receiver, comes in with 14 catches for 159 yards and a long of 25 on that sliding grab he made against Steelers Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu two weeks ago.
The Ocho checks in with 11 catches for 201 yards and a long of 53.
"Sure, getting there," Hawkins said this week of his comfort level with the offense. "I think on any level the more you play the better it all comes together. You play every week, that's how players develop. I don't think about it too much. I look at the playbook and learn the plays and go when my number is called."
One of the major reasons rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has been able to deal so smoothly with the NFL transition is the new wide receivers room. Once a cauldron of egos and idiosyncrasies, Hawkins is as much an example as the blue-collar superstar in Green and the pair of 2008 draft picks that had to wait their turn in Caldwell and Jerome Simpson.
Given his résumé, Hawkins brings a lifetime of maturity to his team and job head coach Marvin Lewis can't resist.
"I think with his maturity as a person, yes," said Lewis of the CFL experience. "I hear him just as we go through things, and he picks things up very quickly. He is helpful to other players as far as understanding things."
You want reality TV from your receivers? Hawkins was sleeping on a former college teammate's couch while caddying and coaching the Toledo receivers to make ends meet before getting a shot in Canada.
"It's a great story, isn't it?" Urban asked. "He gets so emotional in pregame that he has to calm down a little bit to get him ready to roll. He's just living in the moment. He gets all fired up. It's fun to be around. He doesn't want to lose his opportunity."
Hawkins's teammates joke with him about how they know even it is just a walkthrough, he's going 100 percent. It's now at the point where Hawkins tells them, "Go ahead. Make fun of me. I don't care. I'm not going to lose this opportunity."
Plays like the one against Polamalu and the optical illusion catch last week on the game's first scoring drive in Baltimore when Hawkins's diving stretch that nabbed the back of a bullet at the last instant converted a third-and-five put the Bengals in the red zone have given the team so much confidence in Hawkins. Enough that they went to him on first down with about a minute left in the game and needing a tie from the Baltimore 7.
Hawkins was there on an out route that would have tied it. But so, barely, was his second Pro Bowl safety in as many weeks and this time Ed Reed made a play. Somehow, he deflected Dalton's pass just enough to tip it incomplete.
"With his finger. It had to be his middle finger. The longest one," Hawkins said. "It kind of trajected the ball out a little bit. The ball changed right in front of my face. It's just the nature of football. They brought a nickel (cornerback) blitz. He came down on top of me trying to undercut the out route. And he did. Literally, by an inch."
But offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is going to go to Hawkins again. He loves his speed. Gruden rolled out the option for the first time last week and it was wide open with Hawkins as the pitch man. Even though Dalton pitched it behind him for a fumble, it still gained a couple of yards.
"Instead of taking a sharper angle he let the guy kind of play him both," Gruden said of Dalton. "When he took it up the corner closed and when Andy tried to pitch it, Hawkins was in front of him too far. He was trying to continue the pitch lane. We've done it 3-4 times. I think we still gained a couple yards."
It's going to happen again. Like Hawkins said, "Not my fault, not his fault, just one of those plays. I really like the plays the offensive coordinator calls. He plays it to our strengths."
Hawkins just turned 25, but plays like he's 35, which is the age of his brother, former cornerback Artrell Hawkins, an analyst on the Bengals Radio Network and long-time supporter of his baby brother. He was with the media horde Wednesday and couldn't resist a needle.
"Now's the time to go in and ask for the $5 million," Artrell joked of The Ocho stats comparison.
But it's no joke.
A long road of doing it the right way?