Rookie wide receiver Jerome Simpson's frustrating rookie season got a little more frustrating last Sunday when he was told before the game he was inactive because injuries at safety had shorted the Bengals on special teams and defense.
Simpson, who drew his first start two weeks ago in Indianapolis in his sixth NFL game and played his most pro snaps, thinks it's going to happen again Sunday in Cleveland.
Welcome to another example of where football is not like any other pro sport. Even though the Bengals are out of it and they have a chance to develop a key player for their future, they also had to be able to make sure they can line up across the board. The offense also had to deal with two inactive running backs and an inactive tight end.
"That's the only reason," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, who knows the only way Simpson will get better is if he plays. "Nothing else. You've got injuries at tight end and running back and if somebody goes down, you've got to cover your options."
And like special teams coach Darrin Simmons says, "It's tough to dress six receivers. All of them have to do something." Glenn Holt covers kicks, rookie Andre Caldwell returns them and Simpson has yet to find a niche.
When talking about the future of the Chad Ocho Cinco-T.J. Houshmandzadeh duo sticking together at least one more year, look at the possible replacements and the experience factor is hugely thin.
Another reason it's tough to let Houshmandzadeh walk is because he can play all three receiver spots while Ocho Cinco and Simpson play pretty much only the X receiver. Caldwell can play two spots, but he's only played five games himself.
"It's frustrating because I want to play. I want to contribute," Simpson said. "It's frustrating. I'm used to playing. Especially when you work hard every day and try to figure out a reason why you're not playing. I guess it's a rookie thing. They don't trust me yet. They don't have confidence in me coming from a very, very small school at Coastal Carolina. I think it will be different next year."
Simpson knows it's a game-time decision and he's heard the inactive call more times than the "let's go" and it could be that way again Sunday because the Bengals are going to sell out on Browns special teams maven Josh Cribbs a week after they gave up Rock Cartwright's 87-yard kick return.
Cribbs is 10th in the league with a 92-yard touchdown and it just so happens that old nemesis Jim Maxwell, a fifth-year linebacker, showed up this week. Maxwell, the 54th man on the Bengals 53-man roster this past Cutdown Day, is doing a deja vu. Last year he was on the street until he showed up in Week 12 and got a chance to play in the 14th game before forcing Cribbs to fumble in the 15th game on a play the Browns recovered in the Bengals 19-14 victory.
Maxwell had two of his three special-teams tackles against the Browns. Now in another Game 15 against Cleveland, he'll try to be a factor again.
"Special teams is easier to pick up because you don't have to learn a whole new scheme," Maxwell said before Thursday's practice. "You have to know your assignment and use your experience."
Maxwell has been working out since he got cut like he worked out for his pro day at the draft at Velocity Sports Performance near his home in Charlotte, N.C. Since he came in virtually cold off the street last year and contributed, he sees no reason he can't now.
"I think I'll be OK physically," Maxwell said. "I think it will be a matter of mentally making sure what I have to do. It's my fifth year in the league. I should be OK. With Cribbs, you know you have to gang-tackle him."
Simmons doesn't even know if he'll activate Maxwell, but he knows whoever is healthy and available can't repeat last Sunday's gaffe because Cribbs will not only take it to the house, but the Home and Garden Show.
"A couple of guys lost leverage and I'm not happy about it. I know we can play better," Simmons said. "That happens with inexperienced players. The thing with Cribbs is you have to understand that he doesn't let anybody tackle him."
Simmons is also holding his cards close on top special teams tackler Kyries Hebert. Hebert has 20 tackles, Cribbs has 22, and Pro Bowler Brendon Ayanbadejo of Baltimore has 16. Simmons has had to back off Hebert the last two games because he had to start at safety, but he kept him on one team and he still made two tackles on kick cover while playing pretty much every defensive snap.
"And he didn't say a word," said Simmons, who won't say what he'll do with Hebert this week. "I think Cribbs is having a better year covering kicks than he is returning."
Also Thursday, Browns tight end Kellen Winslow was ruled out Sunday with a high ankle sprain.