Being ready when your number is called can be a key component to success in the National Football League. Not every player is a superstar or a starter, but on any given Sunday, it could be any one of 46 active players making a significant impact on a game.
Wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher played in 10 games and had six receptions for 61 yards for the Bengals in 2013. Sure, the numbers are far from eye-popping, but impact on a team and on a game cannot always be quantified. In fact, two of his six catches came in crucial situations in tough road wins last season.
In the Week 6 27-24 overtime win at Buffalo, the Bengals faced a difficult decision late in the third quarter. It was 4th-and-15 at the Buffalo 34-yard line. Rather than attempting a long field goal or trying to pin the Bills back with a punt, head coach Marvin Lewis decided to roll the dice and go for it.
Enter Sanzenbacher. Lined up in the slot, he beat his man off the line of scrimmage and pulled in a one-handed catch in between two defenders for 23 yards to convert the first down. Although the possession ended in a missed field goal, Sanzenbacher proved he could handle the high-pressure scenario.
"You can't really plan for that," said Sanzenbacher. "We do drills with a bunch of one-handed stuff and you can do it all you want, but those situations just come up randomly in games and sometimes you get lucky and you make that play. It's more about staying ready and in the game than anything. It can be tough coming off the bench cold and being forced into those situations and be expected to perform. But that's what a lot of guys in the NFL are expected to do, and that's what we get paid for. Moreso than anything, keeping yourself mentally involved in the game is the challenge. Once you get out there and playing, it just naturally takes over."
The following week, in an overtime win at Detroit by the same 27-24 score, the Bengals got the ball at their 49 with 26 seconds to go in a tie game. Sanzenbacher had hardly played in the game, but he was in with the game on the line and made a seven-yard reception to the Detroit 44, helping the Bengals move within field goal range. After an eight-yard completion to Giovani Bernard, Mike Nugent buried a game-winning 54-yard field goal as time expired.
"You just always have to be telling yourself that it could be the next play," said Sanzenbacher. "Until the clock is done, you still have a shot to have an impact on the game. Most of the time maybe you're trying to trick yourself, but there comes games like the Detroit one where the situation comes up, and whether you've played that much or not, here comes the fourth quarter with 20 seconds left and all of the sudden you've got to be ready. Part of it is constantly reminding yourself that you can still have an impact on the game. Whether it happens or not, the next game comes along and you have to have the same mindset."
Sanzenbacher originally entered the NFL in 2011 as a college free agent signee of the Chicago Bears. After a steady rookie season in which he played in all 16 games and had 27 catches for 276 yards and three TDs, he played in only five games with one catch in 2012 and was released by the Bears on Dec. 23. He was claimed on waivers by the Bengals two days later and was on the inactive list for their final regular season game and Wild Card Playoff game at Houston.
After spending the entire 2013 season with Cincinnati, Sanzenbacher re-signed as a restricted free agent this offseason. He says he has gotten more and more comfortable the longer he has been in Cincinnati.
"It's nice, and there's a certain comfort level to that," said Sanzenbacher. "Coming in so late in the year was actually kind of nice a few years ago because when I came back the next year, everything wasn't brand new. I got that few weeks of introduction, so I feel like I've been there even longer than a full year. The longer you're there, the more of a comfort level you have. It's easier to come to work and easier to perform well when you're in a place that you like, and you enjoy going to work and you're comfortable with the guys."
With A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu projected to occupying the top three WR spots on the opening preseason depth chart, it is an open competition for the next few spots. With the offseason departure of former Bengal Andrew Hawkins to the Cleveland Browns, Sanzenbacher would appear to be right in the mix for the No. 4 spot. Although everybody is competing for roster spots and playing time, Sanzenbacher enjoys the camaraderie of the young receiving group.
"The coolest part of our receiving corps is that we are all around the same age," said Sanzenbacher. "(Brandon) Tate is the vet in our group but he's not much older than the other guys. It's kind of a committee more than anything, which makes it cool. Everybody is in there helping each other, and we're all a young group of guys that are trying to get better and win games. There's no real seasoned vet that can pass down wisdom. It's an open forum, and we have a great group of guys. There's not a guy in the room that's tough to get along with."
During OTAs and minicamp, the Bengals got their first chance to see what new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's offense would look like in action. As with any change in coordinator, there's always an adjustment period, but with Jackson having been on the coaching staff for the last two years, the change was not drastic.
"I think OTAs went really well," said Sanzenbacher. "As a whole offensive unit, it was cool to be able to get in there and see all the new working parts in motion. Hue's been around, he's been in the system, but it's still nice to have that little change up and actually get out there and be with the guys and start to see this new offense take shape. I don't think anybody struggled learning it that much. It's not like it's a whole clean slate and everything was brand new, but it takes some getting used to, to get the new terms and verbiage and get everybody on the same page."
Sanzenbacher is currently training at a facility in Arizona to prepare for training camp, and in turn, the season.
"This is something I've done for the past couple of years," said Sanzenbacher. "There's a little training facility out here that I really like, and there's a few other NFL guys that come out here. I feel like it does a good job of preparing me for what camp is going to bring, not only from a heat standpoint, but also conditioning and weight training. I like to come out here for about a month right before camp starts."
As far as personal goals and expectations for the upcoming season, Sanzenbacher concedes that he's more worried about team success, more specifically, the success of the entire offensive unit.
"I'm ready to go. I'm pretty open-minded about it. Obviously, everybody knows our goals as a team and as an offense. You set expectations and goals for yourself when a lot of times things are out of your control. All you can really do is go out and play your game and let the chips fall. I'm just going to prepare the best I can, show up in late July and we'll see what happens from there."