You’ve got to remember, after two games last season Joe Mixon already had a 27-yard run, a 21-yard run, a 13-yard run and an 11-yard run on his way to the Bengals’ first AFC rushing championship. You’ve also got to remember that he carried it 17 times in one game and 21 times in the other for 179 yards, which would put him fifth in the league.
So maybe you can see why before Wednesday’s practice he unleashed one of the more memorable public self-floggings in recent memory in Bengaldom Town Square. They head to Buffalo for Sunday’s game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Local 12) branded with the NFL’s worst running game and Mixon is yet to have a run that counts longer than nine yards.
His 27 yards have come on 17 carries.
Combined. Total. Aggregate.
“I’ve been playing terrible. Me personally, that’s not what I do. I’m always on tip-top, A-game performance,” Mixon said. “Like I said, these past two weeks, it hasn’t been that. But like I said, I’ll get back to doing the things that I do best, and that’s running that rock. I’m going to get it popping real soon.”
No one in their right mind would pin the flailing of the running game all on Mixon. Just watch him make three cuts to get back to the line of scrimmage, which he did more than once last Sunday against the 49ers.
But this is why you have to love Mixon. He plays with passion and wears that same heart on his sleeve. His head coach gets it.
“I like guys that are accountable, whether it’s on them or not. It’s a great thing to see guys pointing a finger at themselves, (as) opposed to pointing it at their teammates,” Zac Taylor said. “There is no need to point the finger at one guy, but Joe has been a great locker room presence for us. He’s accountable for the things that he can control, and that’s what we’re going to need to be successful.”
Taylor walked into Paul Brown Stadium last February with a fail-safe playbook hot off the Super Bowl press to get the Green-Dalton offense back into the playoffs. A run-first scheme. Everything off the run, like the NFC champ Rams, starting with one of the league’s most exciting young backs.
Joltin’ Joe Mixon.
But Andy Dalton has thrown it 93 times and the backs have run it 30 times for 1.8 yards per carry. The answer, it would seem, is a devastated offensive line that on Sunday is staring at starting its fourth different No. 1 left tackle and fourth different No. 1 left guard since the May practices. Even the linemen talked Wednesday about the need to give Mixon room. Plus, the pace of the game for Taylor, their play-caller, has lurched and careened with penalties and mistakes rather than flowed with rhythmic runs.
“We all want to step it up. Zac been harping on it this whole week. He's been harping that we've got to get the run going, but at the same time, we've got to keep the pass going,” Mixon said. “But, the pass is supposed to open it up for us, and they've been doing their part. Like I said, it's been me. It's not them. They are in front of their men most of the time. At the end of the day, I've got to be the one to make that next jump in level and get to be elite. That's who I am, that's what I do is be elite. That's the stuff I've got to do, and I take full responsibility in all of that stuff because I'm supposed to be the one getting us down the field. I'm going to get it right, and I'm going to get it right real quick, where it's going to be corrected.”
Mixon is one of the Oklahoma greats and he’s done what no Bengals back ever did (and that includes Corey Dillon, Rudi Johnson, James Brooks, Cedric Benson) and that’s win an AFC rushing title. But he’s a Bay Area guy at heart. That’s where he grew up. Oakley, Calif., about an hour from Oakland and San Francisco. So you know there has to be a Golden State Warriors reference coming when talks about getting into the flow of the game.
“It's always hard getting that first one, but once you get that first one, it's just like in an NBA game,” Mixon said. “Say for Steph Curry, for instance, you've got some games where he struggles shooting 3s and it's like once he hits one and it's a big one and the crowd gets the momentum, he feels like he can shoot anywhere, and that's usually what he does. And, I feel like for me, we could call any run at any moment and it could be first-and-15 or first-and-20 or first-and-10 or whatever the case may be, backed up, I feel like if I could break one good run, get in a groove where I feel I could run any run or do whatever the case may be.”
But, he thinks he’s trying to do too much. He’s trying to get those 179 yards back all at once. So hence another Bay Area reference. Franklin Gore. Or “The Inconvenient Truth,” according to profootballreference.com’s nicknames. Or, to Mixon, he’s just plain “Frank.”
Mixon grew up watching Gore’s Hall-of-Fame career begin with the 49ers and then got to know him later, when he says Gore checked him out at a Freedom High game. On Sunday they meet in Buffalo with Gore rumbling into his 15th season on a crash course with the Hall of Fame, his steady, don’t-force-it 4.3 yards per carry average battering him into fourth place on the all-time yardage list, a mere 124-yard game from 15,000.
Now Mixon is thinking about how he’d like to incorporate that kind of style to just get it going.
“He’s the definition of he takes what’s given to him,” Mixon said. “He runs low. He runs powerful. I don’t know about now, but when I was a little boy, he used to definitely have that go, you know what I’m saying? Right now, I’m sure he’s just trying to climb and get as much as rushing yards as he can while he can still do it at a high level, which is what he’s been doing. Frank, I got nothing but the most respect for him.”
Mixon knows he’s been trying to force some runs. He knows he’s got to patiently “Gore,” the defense. Or, as he says, “Taking what’s there and not what I want.”
A picture perfect day in Cincinnati for a practice. View some of the top images from Wednesday's practice at Paul Brown Stadium.
“It’s been frustrating because what I’ve been displaying out there. Right now, I’ve been looking for the big run and that’s what I shouldn’t be doing,” Mixon said. “I have to go back and re-evaluate what works and what doesn’t. I got to pound them and do everything that I’m supposed to do. I just got to do whatever I can to be successful. I have to stay true to my reads.”
Mixon took some heat after Sunday’s game when he bristled at the boos and the 3 p.m. exit to the gates and challenged the fans to a tryout to see if they could be better. Frustration. Competitiveness. Cooler heads have prevailed and Joltin’ Joe is reaching back into the community, talking about starting some football adult camps. And, look, this is the same passion that drove him last year to keep the team and offense together without Green and Dalton.
That little guy in the Bay is 23 years old now. Things are a little more complicated and so he’ll self-flog to take the heat and ignite himself. Mixon never got Gore’s autograph. But he hopes to get something better.
“I might try to get his jersey this week,” Mixon said.
He’d gladly give him the shirt off his back if he has a Gore-like game.