CINCINNATI — John Ross played only 17 snaps for the Bengals last season, which was less than almost any offensive rookie drafted in 2017, let alone a top-10 pick.
His last playing time came in a loss to the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 14, a stint that ended after only six snaps. Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis chided him afterward for “letting his team down” when the wide receiver pulled up on a deep route, thinking the ball wasn’t coming his way.
That pass from Andy Dalton did come his way. It sailed incomplete, which is the perfect word to describe Ross’ rookie campaign.
John Ross was all smiles on the field last week, in stark contrast to his rookie season. John Minchillo/Associated Press
It was a year of frustration, injuries and ultimately some soul-searching for Ross, who wasn’t able to fully participate until late in last year’s training camp while he recovered from offseason labrum surgery. A knee sprain and surgery to his other shoulder also contributed to derailing the speedster out of the University of Washington.
“Last year, I was just down, not being able to run full speed, not being able to do everything in the weight room,” Ross said. “Not to have excuses or anything, but I honestly just wasn’t physically or mentally ready for what I got myself into. There was so much going on.”
It was a humbling experience for Ross, who admitted there were times when he felt down or frustrated. But veteran wideouts A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell didn’t let him feel sorry for himself, often telling Ross to pick his head up if they ever saw it start to hang.
“A.J. and Brandon LaFell [told me] that I’m going to be OK,” Ross recalled. “They all said they’ve been through something crazy in their years. Anything can happen. There’s guys who have barely played, like T.J. [Houshmandzadeh].”
Ross’ favorite piece of advice came from former Bengals wide receiver Houshmandzadeh, who essentially told him that everything happens in its own time.
Ross asked Houshmandzadeh if the two could work out together in California this offseason. That’s when the former Pro Bowler reminded the No. 9 overall pick that his own rookie season wasn’t so spectacular, either.
“I think the best advice I got this year [was] T.J. telling me how he started his career. His rookie year, he barely played, and look how he blossomed. So it can happen to anybody,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of players who have something going on. Everybody goes through adversity.”
Everybody wants to know why Ross didn’t have a better rookie season.
“I couldn’t put a stamp on what was the problem, because there were so many problems,” he said. “I was focused on something new every week. That’s what I realized, it’s just not working for me right now. So I had a meeting with coaches and trainers to focus on where I needed to be and what was best for me moving forward.”
The problem certainly was never talent, which was evident from not only his college playing days but also his record-setting 4.22-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. However, from the minute Ross put on a Bengals uniform, it was clear that speed and talent wouldn’t automatically bring NFL success.
He wasn’t given many chances to prove himself, and when he did get them, they ultimately ended in disappointment, whether it was a fumble against the Houston Texans or the botched route against the Titans.
Ross didn’t even participate in organized team activities last year because he was finishing his degree at Washington. He wasn’t medically cleared from the offseason shoulder surgery until training camp already had opened, and by that time, it was a mad scramble to try to absorb an overwhelming amount of information with very little time to apply it.
“The steps forward are going to have to come out here,” Lewis said, referring to the practice field. “There’s nothing he did otherwise that’s going to show anything different but just coming out here, getting comfortable and playing football. And making the adjustments and all the things he has to do as a receiver.”
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The Bengals are counting on Ross to take a step forward this season. They finished last in total offense in 2017, in part because they didn’t have another threat outside of Green. If Ross can get on the field, the threat of his speed alone would force opposing defenses to account for him and perhaps draw coverage away from Green.
But right now, it’s just step one. Ross’ first career practice of OTAs, on May 22, could be considered fairly successful, as he flashed his speed in one-on-one drills and made several nice catches, including one in which he made an adjustment to bring in a deep pass. He was reminded by Lewis to always “finish” a route.
As he often did last season, even when he wasn’t playing, Ross faced a large group of reporters in the locker room after practice with his usual poise.
“It’s been something I’ve been waiting for, for a long time, and I felt really good out there,” Ross said. “I’ve been feeling good all year, and I wanted to have a good day today. I think it was OK. I had a drop and some things I’ll correct. It’s Day 1. We’ll get better.”
For the first time as an NFL player, Ross wasn’t trying to play catch-up. Now he has all the time he needs — and a whole year’s worth of knowledge under his belt.
“Feeling the way I feel now, it feels great. I feel better. I’m happy to be where I am,” he said.