When it comes to the Bengals roster scrum and the almost open-and-shut case for Quan Cosby, you can't look at the stat sheet. Even if it says he's been the team's most productive wide receiver this preseason. And don't look at the depth chart, which says he's the No. 1 punt returner. Paper does you no good.
You have to talk to guys like cornerback Adam Jones, the man that Cosby helped spring for a 51-yard kick return to open Saturday night's game in Buffalo.
"He had the biggest block to start it," Jones said. "He gets the guy coming from the frontside or the backside and I think on that one he got the backside guy."
Never mind that Cosby is in a heated competition with Jones for both the punt and kick return jobs and that only percentage points separate them in both. Or that Cosby tossed in his own 31-yarder in the second half Saturday.
"We know what Quan is. We know what we're going to get out of Quan every single play," said special teams coach Darrin Simmons. "We know we're going to get his best effort regardless of whether he's handling the ball, regardless of whether he's blocking. I think that shows how unselfish he is. Regardless of who is handling the ball, he's going to do whatever he can to get the team upfield."
The release of Antonio Bryant opened up one more precious spot at receiver on the 53-man roster and whether that secures Cosby a spot is anyone's guess and that's all anyone is doing.
"It did just because he got a big contract," Cosby said of his surprise at the move.
What we do know is that offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski indicated Monday that it is probably going to be six receivers. The consensus four is Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, Jordan Shipley and Andre Caldwell. And that Cosby has done the most in games this preseason of the remaining five.
"No one knows what is going to happen when it comes down to it," Cosby said. "When I get my shot, I'm going to take advantage of it."
We also know the remaining five cut a wide swath of players. Jerome Simpson and Matt Jones are high draft picks looking for redemption. Maurice Purify is a big, physical college free agent trying to stick in his third season but has missed the last three games with knee tendinitis and is now hung with a one-game NFL suspension for May's arrest on a disorderly conduct charge. Dez Briscoe is a sixth-rounder the club thinks can eventually be a good player once he gains experience.
And Cosby is an exception to the rule. Coming off one of the most decorated careers at one of the nation's most recognized programs last season undrafted, Cosby, the scouts said, was too slow and too small at 5-9, 190 pounds. But he turned in the Bengals' best punt return season in 25 years and offered what Simmons calls the single-best effort play he's seen in more than a decade of NFL coaching when Cosby went 70 yards between key blocks on Bernard Scott's kick return touchdown against Pittsburgh.
He was doing it again Saturday against the Bills as Simmons watched Cosby race across field to get in front of Jones.
"That guy was coming around the edge and just spring it for him," Cosby said. "That's the beauty of it. People say we're competing, but at the end of the day it's about what's on front of the jersey. For the Bengals you make that block and Adam springs and makes a great return. That's what it's about. Guys are competing with each other but guys are pulling for each other just as much."
So if Cosby has the intangibles for one of the two remaining receiver spots, who is the other frontrunner heading into Thursday's 7 p.m. preseason finale in Indianapolis (Cincinnati's Channel 12)?
Because of his youth (24) and athleticism, it could very well be Simpson. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski would like more improvement in Simpson's snap-to-snap consistency, but he says he's getting better. For the first time in Simpson's three seasons Simmons has been getting something out of him on special teams, particularly as a gunner covering punts. One of the many reasons Simpson has played in just eight of 32 games is not being able to contribute on special teams.
"I probably haven't given him a good enough opportunity," Simmons said. "If you're going to be a backup position player on this team you better be able to have some value in the kicking game or you're never going to dress.
"He's done OK. He was in position on a gunner play to make a tackle, he just didn't make it. Had an opportunity. Came down and did exactly what he was supposed to do. The other night he makes a tackle at the (Bengals) 16. It's a big play. Believe me, no one was more excited than he was and I was equally as excited. He did a good job. He's coachable."
Jones, a first-round pick of Jacksonville in 2005, doesn't have those special-team attributes and that could hurt him. But he's showed up every day vowing to shed his underachieving label after not having a job last season and believes he has put enough on film to show he can help this team, or any other. The man who performed miracles as the Arkansas quarterback admits he's never been on the bubble like this before.
"I put myself in this situation and I'm trusting in the Lord and my ability," said Jones, who has used the experience to take notes on The Ocho and Owens.
"I feel like I've gotten better watching them," Jones said. "How they run their routes at the top end. How they get open. Just how they change it up. When you run a curl route, you always don't do the same thing. You're reading the way the defense leverages on you."
Could there be two more different guys than Cosby and Simpson?
The calendar says they are three years apart in age but when it comes to experience it is more like 15. Cosby came out of the factory at Texas and a minor-league baseball stint poised and polished. The knocks on his measurables never faze him. Simpson, with all the height and speed, flashed his ample measurables in Division II anonymity at Coastal Carolina and earned a second-round pick on potential.
The coaches have always raved about Simpson's work ethic and desire to get better. "Great kid," they say. But it has been quite a leap from here to there and not just on the field. After barely any media attention in college, Simpson has declined to talk to some of the reporters regularly covering the team this spring and summer as the speculation of his demise heightened.
On Monday, Cosby laughed as he told the media that one of his friends read that he had lost the punt return job to Jones.
"I didn't know that," he said. "I can't worry about any of that."
That assumption had been made because Simmons made it a point to put Cosby out there for the first punts of the preseason. But in the last couple of games he has put Jones out there in the first half and Cosby in the second half. On Monday, Simmons said that doesn't mean anything.
"How they play on offense and defense goes into it, too," Simmons said. "In a lot of games they've been taking (Jones) out on defense at halftime, so you don't want to keep him up returning punts in the second half. You want to limit your exposure to injury. It just worked out that way that Quan happened to be playing the second half at receiver."
For once in his eight seasons here, Simmons has options coming out of his ears at both kick and punt return. He's got three guys that have returned punts of at least 20 yards (Cosby, Jones, Shipley) and Jones and Cosby flashed their wares on kicks Saturday without even talkling about Scott. Simmons says Scott is still a factor on kicks, but if the best guy is just one guy to do both punts and kicks, he'll take the best guy.
But we also have to start talking about Cosby as a receiver, don't we? Yes, it's been against backups but none of the remaining five have been able to do what he's done in the second half of the four games and that's average nearly 15 yards per his seven catches. His 44-yard catch from Jordan Palmer in the fourth quarter Saturday night is the longest any receiver has had this season.
"He just makes plays; he's just a football player," said quarterback Carson Palmer. "There is something to be said about guys that are football players. He may not run 4.3, but he's shifty, nifty, he's very savvy, especially in the slot."
And receiver is the one subject that can get the unassuming Cosby going.
"I can play receiver, too. I can do that pretty good, too," said Cosby, who finished his run at Texas as the school's second all-time leading receiver. "Back in college I did all right … I don't really listen to the things they have against me. When that ball is in the air I try to go up and get it. When the ball is kicked to me, I try to make a couple of first downs for our offense. Whether I'm too slow or too whatever, I just need to be faster than that guy across from me."
If you don't look at paper, he is enough of the time.