It's hard to know what hurt Carl Lawson more.
His season-ending ACL tear coming on a play that didn't count? Or his season ending before his best plays could count?
No matter the answer, Lawson vowed before Monday's practice that he would be back for next year's opener.
"What is that?" he asked. "2020? 2019?"
2019 it is, but Lawson couldn't help talk about 2018, even though he had just one sack after his 8.5-sack his rookie year. The '19 opener? With a guy like running back Giovani Bernard coming back from a Nov. 20, 2016 ACL tear to play in the 2017 opener, it ought to happen.
"I'm a much better player than I was my rookie year as far as winning my one-on-one matchups, playing the run. I was a better player than last year," Lawson said. "Even though the production wasn't there. I sat there and watched the film and that's what I came away with … A lot of times this year we had third-and-short, so the ball is coming out quick or things of that nature. Even though I was getting more attention I was still winning more. I don't feel like I regressed, I feel I got better."
Now all eyes are on another promising rookie edge rusher in Sam Hubbard, the third-rounder out of Ohio State. He's already got two sacks, a fumble return for a touchdown, a couple of lead blocks on touchdowns as a fullback in the goal-line package and a turn at safety to prevent a Hail Mary.
"I don't know what the plan is to replace him. He was such a big part of our defense," said Hubbard of the Lawson loss. "Obviously we're all going to have to pick up the slack. Whatever they ask me to, I'll do it. Just like usual."
No, they haven't asked him to take some snaps at tight end, although he was waiting now that the last healthy starter, C.J. Uzomah, just one of three tight ends, has a shoulder injury that kept him out of Monday's practice.
"The role on the goal line looks to be plenty," Hubbard said. "I never played tight end in a game, so that would be asking a lot."
They're asking a lot now just to fill in the bulk of Lawson's edge snaps, which he did on Sunday with a career-high 54 snaps. He was averaging 26 plays per game both at end and at nickel tackle before Lawson went down on his first snap against the Bucs last week. And the thing of it was, the play was blown dead when the Bucs were granted a timeout as Lawson began his rush on fourth-and-four on the Bucs' sixth play of the game. When Lawson tried to stop …
"I got caught in between," Lawson said of his aborted rush. "I was just trying to stop because I heard the whistle. It was a freak play. There was a little contact … It's one of those things."
If anything can be counted on, it's that Lawson is going to be ready for next year's opener. Lawson, whose father is a personal trainer, grew up in the weight room and is a work-out maven who overcame an injury-plagued career at Auburn by taking relentless care of his body. One of those injuries was a torn ACL in his other knee during his freshman year. Lawson plans to have the same surgeon group operate on this knee, the one spearheaded by the renowned Dr. James Andrews.
Pointing to that right knee he said belongs to his push-off leg, he assured, "This one feels great. There's no lack of confidence in the work they did."
It is the fifth ACL tear suffered by the Bengals this season, a record since they started counting in 1999. They had only six in the previous five seasons. Lawson becomes the seventh Bengal to go on injured reserve this season and they're coming off a game in which seven injured players were inactive. Most of the injuries are traumatic blows to feet, ankles, knees or shoulders rather than soft-tissue problems.
"I'm at peace," Lawson said. "You can only control what you can control."
BENGALS TAP QB: Monday's workout wasn't the first time this season the Bengals were impressed with the way former Raiders quarterback Connor Cook threw the ball. Back in September when he was a member of the Panthers practice squad, his throws in pre-game warmup caught the eye. After the 6-4, 215-pound Cook spun it again, the Bengals opted to sign him to the practice squad and release Christian Hackenberg, Cook's fellow quarterback from the draft class of 2016.
The Bengals also signed to the squad tight end Andrew Vollert, 6-5, 245-pound undrafted rookie out of Weber State. After playing in all four pre-season games for the Cardinals, he was waived at final cuts after catching eight passes for 50 yards. He was cut from their practice squad last week.
Hackenberg, who signed to the squad at the start of the regular season, was the fourth quarterback taken when he went in the second round. Cook, out of Michigan State, went to the Raiders on the second pick of the fourth after Jacoby Brissett and Cody Kessler went in the third.
It's a small world, after all. Before the Raiders cut Cook at the end of this preseason when they signed old friend AJ McCarron, he had played in only two games and they were the final two games of his rookie season. He made his debut in the season finale when No. 2 quarterback Matt McGloin went down and he threw a 32-yard touchdown pass and a pick while completing 14 of 21 passes for 150 yards in a 24-6 loss to Denver. Then the next week Cook became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first career start in a play-off game, completing 18 of 45 passes for 161 yards, a touchdown, and three interceptions in a 27-14 loss to the Texans. In the last couple of weeks Cook tried out for the Giants and Patriots.