Sands of time

The Bengals start their offseason program Monday and with T.J. Houshmandzadeh saying goodbye and Chad Ocho Cinco not saying, the next thing to be said is that it is the first day of the rest of Jerome Simpson's career.

"I want to turn myself into a technician," Simpson is saying from the deep well of potential. "Last year I relied on my athleticism, but everybody in the NFL is a great athlete."  

It may not be the first test but it certainly is the biggest if you're going to be a productive wide receiver for the Bengals. You need the trust of quarterback Carson Palmer and he currently has his eyes locked on Simpson, last year's rookie that ended up with more game day deactivations (eight) than catches (one).

Simpson didn't always meet the test last year in a difficult transition from tiny Coastal Carolina that exposed his lack of focus and fundamentals.  But now, so far so good after Palmer spent two days throwing with Simpson and his other second-year receiver, Andre Caldwell, at Charles Collins' receivers camp, otherwise known as "The Phenom Factory."

It was Collins who took The Ocho under his wing back in junior college and it was Collins who said Friday that while he doesn't expect Ocho Cinco to be in Cincinnati for the early workouts, he does expect him on the field next week in California.

It was also Collins that Palmer turned to last week after getting a look at Simpson and asked, "Charlie, what did you do to him?" 

"He's looking better and better," Palmer says. "You can tell that he's been working.  You have to really like what those two guys have done. Not many guys in the NFL have done what they've done. They've given up a lot of their offseason and been away from their families to get better."

The voluntary on-field workouts don't start for almost another two months. Whether The Ocho and Simpson can go back to the future together is one issue. But one thing is sure: Simpson and Caldwell are now joined like The Ocho was with Chad Johnson.

Simpson and Caldwell are just back from the Los Angeles area after an intensive five-week stint of training designed to smooth the edges of his raw gifts and inject the Bengals receiving corps with much-needed youth and speed. Simpson's desire and sincerity have never been doubted. Now that it has been reinforced by some NFL experience that the club hopes matures him, the hope is he's closer to The Ocho than David Verser.

"We didn't do what we wanted to do last year passing the ball," Simpson says. "Andre and I are trying to improve as much as we can so we can do the things we didn't do last year. It was like getting married.  I didn't know what to expect."

The 6-2, 195-pound Simpson has to marry his ample physical skills (big flypaper hands, speed, and an even bigger vertical jump) with the nooks and crannies of the NFL. Ranging from professionalism to post patterns. Even though the Bengals picked Caldwell a round after Simpson in the third, they knew Caldwell's college background and production at Florida would cushion his transition.

It is Simpson they labeled "project," and that's exactly what they got.

"My biggest improvement has been getting out of my breaks," he says. "I'm stronger in the legs. So I'm exploding off the ball and I'm seeing the ball sooner. I'm seeing it better because I'm seeing it sooner. Carson told me the same thing he told you. That I look better, that I'm not letting the ball get in on me."

Other Bengals receivers made the trip to L.A. Antonio Chatman lives out there. Chris Henry went for about three weeks. Mario Urrutia also spent some time. But Simpson and Caldwell arrived Feb. 14 and didn't leave until March 20.

"Beautiful weather," says the North Carolina native.  "Andre and I hung out. We stayed in the same hotel. We'd go to the beach. We're close now. He's like my brother."

They didn't go to the beach just to sightsee. Collins put them through rigorous bare-footed drills around cones in the sand, much like he did with The Ocho back in the day.

"The sand gives and you have to dig out of it and it makes you sink your hips so that you maintain balance coming out of the breaks," Collins says.

They did the cones twice a week and caught routes twice a week. They also lifted and ran up hills, 150 meters straight into the sun "so they would strengthen their hips and butts and their core."

"The focus is separation," Simpson says. "Running the route so the defender thinks it is something else. We didn't do the routes right away because we hadn't run any since the end of the season. We built up slowly with the conditioning."

The Bengals built him up with the second-round pick and he knows the responsibility that comes with it.

"I don't think there's more pressure," Simpson says. "We've been playing football our whole lives. There's been that same pressure to win since I was playing pee wees. It's the same thing. If you can't deal with the pressure, you've got to get out of the game.

"That's why we're out here trying to get better. We're trying to improve so we can win games and give this city the team it deserves. It's a great city and we've got great fans and we've got to give them something a lot better than last year."

Collins, who worked with the Bengals as an offensive assistant last year before taking a job to coach the receivers of the new UFL's San Francisco franchise, says Simpson is "a completely different player" compared to the end of last season.

"Does he still have a ways to improve? Yes," Collins says. "But when it comes to the understanding of coming out of routes and maintaining balance and playing in a system, he now understands it."

There is a bit of irony at work here. Collins has always said that Simpson isn't all that much removed from a junior college Chad Johnson. If Simpson wants to know what it takes, he just has to watch how Ocho Cinco became a five-time Pro Bowler with immense sacrifice and dedication.

So much so that head coach Marvin Lewis invoked it earlier this week at the annual league meeting when he talked about the 31-year-old Ocho Cinco reviving his own career.

"In order to get back to being the Chad Johnson that everybody feared, he was a guy who worked very, very hard at his craft," Lewis said. "And if you don't do that, it falls away very quickly and people forget about you."

While the Bengals are uncertain what The Ocho is doing so far, at least Simpson is certain what he has to do.

"When Chad came to junior college from Florida, he was a quarterback; he was new to the position," Collins says. "He's like Jerome. He had to work to understand separation, balance and breaks, and the pace of a route. They had similar issues."

Simpson knows he's about a year behind schedule.

"I can't wait for the start of it," he says. "I've been dreaming about it and wishing I could wake up and the season was here."

FIVE YOUNGINS' TO WATCH (With the Bengals starting offseason workouts Monday, here are five and/or positions to watch)

1. WR Jerome Simpson (6-2, 195 second year): Last year's second-round pick who only caught one ball last season. Coming off encouraging winter workouts.

2. C Kyle Cook (6-3, 306 second year) and Dan Santucci (6-4, 304 third year):The Bengals don't have a center with an NFL snap and these are the top two. They've been in the system for two years and Cook was set to replace Eric Ghiaciuc until he suffered a season-ending toe injury with Santucci (ankle) already on IR.

3. T Anthony Collins (6-5, 317, second year):Fourth-round pick from last season who started the last six games at left tackle well enough to be one of the high points. With uncertain status of left tackle Levi Jones, Collins may be asked to move to right tackle and show that he's got the anchorability.

4. DT Jason Shirley (6-5, 340, second year):Boom boom with great size or busted with lack of consistent intensity? They should find out this year after fifth-rounder played in just three games.

5. RB James Johnson (5-11, 202, second year):College free agent flashed at end of the season. With Cedric Benson re-signed and another fairly high draft pick figured to be ticketed for a back, the future of veterans Chris Perry and Kenny Watson hazy at best.

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