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From Isaac Curtis To Ja'Marr Chase, Bengals Offense Hopes To Open Rule

Ja'Marr Chase is No. 1 among all NFL rookie receivers ever.
Ja'Marr Chase is No. 1 among all NFL rookie receivers ever.

The Bengals open defense of their AFC championship Sunday at Paycor Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) with just maybe the offense Paul Brown had in mind all those years ago when he urged the NFL to adopt those liberal passing game regulations that became known in these parts as "The Isaac Curtis Rule."

"Three very good receivers," says the man himself, poised to go into the Bengals Ring of Honor later this month 49 years after they took a transplanted running back and San Diego State transfer in the first round.

"Those three guys complement each other. I enjoy watching all the plays those guys make. They're fast, they're rangy, they go get the ball. They're fun to watch."

After Bengals Pro Bowler Ja'Marr Chase had the greatest rookie season an NFL wide receiver ever had last year, it seems quite natural, then, to start a season in this one where officials are re-emphasizing the tenant of the modern passing game. As they warn  defensive backs to keep their hands off wide receivers five yards down field, 2022 starts with Curtis' Bengals against Mel Blount's Steelers. 

"Illegal contact? Yeah," says Bengals slot cornerback Mike Hilton of the August emphasis. "Hopefully they realize the offense is going to do it, too, and not just try to call it on defense. We'll see how it goes."

Curtis, the world-class sprinter, and Blount, the new-age cornerback as linebacker, met twice a year in the old AFC Central in a matchup that epitomized a rising league blazing new trails.

Nearly 50 years later here is what the evolution of the passing game has wrought Sunday in Paycor.

Head coach Zac Taylor's playbook of possibilities transformed the Bengals overnight into a Super Bowl team with sweet-tossing quarterback Joe Burrow throwing to three 1,000-yard receivers past and present. Chase (an NFL rookie-record 1,455 yards), Tee Higgins (1,091) and Tyler Boyd (828) had the most yards of any trio in the league last year.

"There's always been really good ones. It just seems like each team, instead of having just one, has three like us," says Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, also an NFL secondary coach in the previous decade. "That would be rare back in the day. The emphasis is just on more and more wideouts with 11 personnel and all the different wide looks."

If Curtis is the early prototype of the modern wide receiver leading the first wave of freaks with Olympic speed and safecracker hands, then Chase is the sleek late model built with 21st century engineering and, as his old weight room coach says, freakish genetics.

"The thing that separated him from everybody else was the amount of power he generated in such a short amount of time," says Tommy Moffitt, LSU's former strength and conditioning coach.

Moffitt's staff used meters per second to track how fast bar bells were moved with the body. Anything below .5 meters per second develops strength. Above .5 meters develops power. If they wanted the bar to go slowly, they would keep putting weight on until the bar slowed. There would be a number they didn't want to exceed for fear of injury.

But this guy?

"I would go back and check on Ja'Marr and the coach would say, 'I just keep putting more weight on the bar and he keeps going faster and faster,''' Moffitt says. "He was so freaking strong and powerful, we couldn't slow the bar down.

"We wanted to see if he would break the bar bell."

That coach was Jeremy Jacobs, now an associate director for sports performance and head of football applied sports science at Duke. He also had Justin Jefferson, Chase's college teammate and fellow NFL record-breaking receiver, and he says his explosion wasn't close to what Chase did in the weight room. Jacobs can spit out the LSU stats.

Power cleaned 330 pounds. Squatted 475 pounds. Dead-lifted more than 500 pounds.

"You can see all that just how he's able to run away from people and outjump guys," Hilton says. "The thing about him is that he has a lot more power in his legs, so he knows how to explode and use his lower body strength."

"He's the most gifted athlete I've ever coached," says Jacobs who saw something else in the 2019 conditioning drills that set up LSU's perfect season.

Nobody can put a number on the competitiveness. Chase and Jefferson were so fit they never lost a breath as they trash talked each other non-stop with every weight lifted and sprint ran. It has transferred to the pros, where Bengals strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese's staff sees it every day.

"We've got a lot of great players in here," Boese says.

"One of the most explosive guys I've ever seen. I had Davante Adams in college. Von Miller in college. They're explosive, superstar talents in the NFL and Ja'Marr is as good as I've ever seen."

Those players see it in there, too.

"There are guys who are really strong, but they don't know how to use it on the football field," says Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. "He knows how to use it and it helps him get open."

In an era when NFL teams began dipping heavily into track to find speed, Curtis was famously a football player who just happened to run a 9.3-second 100-yard dash. A spot on the 1972 Olympic team beckoned, but he preferred to concentrate on transferring from Cal to San Diego State while also changing from running back to wide receiver.

A year later he knocked the NFL to its knees with nine touchdowns on 18.7 yards per catch as a rookie. All the while defenders knocked him to the ground.

"I love the freedom they have to run down the field past five yards," Curtis says. "Nobody's going to try and cut you. Nobody is going to try and block you or try to knock you down or push you off your route. You really had to battle to hold your line and your timing with the quarterback."

It turns out that Chase is a football guy playing football. He says growing up just outside New Orleans he loved and played basketball, too. But an old LSU quarterback who coached him in Baton Rouge before becoming the Bengals current assistant wide receivers coach isn't buying that.

"I think," Brad Kragthorpe says, "football was his top priority all the way when he was growing up."

Chase is definitely not a track guy playing football, although he won a Louisiana long jump title when he was a junior. But he says he participated in track that spring to merely keep himself eligible for football.

"Too many fast people," Chase says. "So I wasn't running. Speed has never been the ultimate thing for me … I don't want to be in that category. I don't want to be known for just my speed and not for everything else that I have … That puts you in a different bracket. There's a difference. Speed kills, yes, but look at Davante Adams. He isn't fast, but he can get open. It doesn't matter how fast you are."

It surprises Curtis that Chase never ran track. After all, he has been clocked at a blistering 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash. But that's the thing about Chase. You don't think of him as a burner, but he is. And you don't think of him as a high-point artist. But with a 42-inch vertical leap fueled by those running backs legs, he is.

"He's so fast. He accelerates quickly. He can reach top speed fast. So explosive," Curtis says. "He catches that little hook or a slant or a crossing route, somebody misses a tackle, he accelerates, he's gone. I really enjoy watching him. Honestly, he could play anywhere. He would have been a very good running back."

So would have Curtis. He was actually a hurdler who became a sprinter. He never ran a sprint until he got to college and only because he tweaked a hamstring going over a hurdle. And he says they clocked in the 4.4 range, but that wasn't his M.O.

"I had the long legs," Curtis says. "I was taking off at 40 yards."

Chase is great with faces, but not with names. He hasn't heard of Curtis, but he has seen his touchdown spike, that iconic flip of the ball over his shoulder.

"Cool," Chase says.

But Chase blows hot when it comes to competing. Tommy Moffitt isn't so sure Chase knew the name Fred Biletnikoff, but after a rather uninspiring workout when he was a freshman, Moffit let him know that was the name on the trophy given to the nation's best receiver. Which is OK, because he also hadn't heard of Josh Reed, either.

"He had all the physical tools of Josh Reed," says Moffit of the LSU receiver who won the 2001 Biletnikoff. "I told him to type in 'Josh Reed highlights.' I told him if he busted his butt every day, every practice, he could win it."

Moffit would tell him that once or twice a month. Chase hasn't stopped since and, according to coaches like Kragthorpe, he's still going. Yes, Kragthorpe says, Chase is better than last year.

"He's gotten a lot better this offseason, this training camp for sure,' Kragthorpe says. "He's honed in trying execute the finer details of the position. He's recognizing coverages and leverages and how DBs are attacking him with certain techniques … He's able to run the full route tree already, but now he's working on doing it from any alignment from any spot."

No one talks about his IQ, but it's as powerful as his legs. Kragthorpe says he's not only a good tester in the room, but he translates it to the field.

"When I watch clips of my big plays, I don't really look at the technique and stuff," Chase says. "I might look how I get my release and if I'm stacking down the field or (showing) late hands. That's probably something I'm looking at. It's nothing too much that I'm looking at when I'm watching of myself. I'm really looking at something else."

Take the now famous "Bench," route on basically the last scrimmage snap of the playoff win in Tennessee. He transformed Burrow's 19-yard sideline arrow that stopped the clock in field-goal range after undressing a 10-year cornerback in Jackrabbit Jenkins.

"I did everything right on that play," Chase says.

Kragthorpe says that shows how he evolved running routes his rookie year when it came to reading and reacting to coverage and leverage. But like Chase says, you can't plan everything standing on the line. When "I lost him at the top of the route, I gave him a little something … it's God-given ability at that point."

Kragthorpe sees it as he fights through the physicality of the NFL. He can see why the league is re-emphasizing illegal contact.

"They have started to allow DBs to be more physical within the route and slow down receivers to a certain extent," Kragthorpe says, "and kind of get back in phase at the top of the route if they got beat early in the route."

But, Kragthorpe saw Chase tame the SEC wilds and he's doing it here.

"It's great for us," Kragthorpe says of the emphasis on illegal contact, "but Ja'Marr has the ability to play through that contact and maintain his speed. That gets back to the SEC where they let players play, Especially on the perimeter. They don't throw flags for defensive holding on DBs."

The game keeps getting more open and Curtis plans on watching guys like Chase split it even wider.

"I think it's for the better. It's more fun to watch and better for the spectators," Curtis says. "They don't want to watch guys catching 45 balls a year. Running backs do that now."

From one old running back to a receiver that plays like one.

"Different game. Different offense. But I think he and I pretty much have the capability of doing the same things," Curtis says. "I look at myself as a total player who could run any route on the tree, blocked, could pretty much do it all. But I tell you, speed doesn't hurt you."

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