CINCINNATI — The one thing everyone in Bengaldom was looking forward to this season was watching John Ross, football’s fastest man.
So far, Ross has been as disappointing as the Bengal season in general. He has been active for one game. He’s touched the ball once — on a 15-yard end around that ended in a fumble. He has spent nearly all his time rehabbing a left knee injury suffered in the final preseason game.
Until this week. He has fully participated all week after being limited last week. Ross says he feels good enough to play.
So will this be the week Ross comes back - when the Bengals play the Indianapolis Colts Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m. kickoff)?
If it’s up to Ross, it will.
“If they activate me, I won’t say no,” Ross said. “I’m just waiting for my number to be called.”
Coach Marvin Lewis will make that call. Lewis does not tip his hand on such things, but it’s clear the Bengals could use Ross. Tyler Boyd is hurt. Tyler Eifert is hurt. Cody Core is hurt. And the team desperately needs a wide receiver to take the pressure off A.J. Green.
Consider: Green has 35 catches for 545 yards and three touchdowns. The other wide receivers on the roster have combined for 31 catches, 275 yards and one TD.
The process of getting on the field is twofold for Ross. First, he has to show he is healthy. Second, he has to show he has a grasp of the offensive scheme.
Ross says he’s getting there with the scheme.
“I’ve still got to get in and be able to play to get that experience,” Ross said. “As I get more comfortable, I’ll get better. I’m not saying I’m completely ready to fit in. I’m still learning and going through the process.”
Ross has been behind, through no fault of his, from the time the Bengals made him the ninth pick overall in the draft. Because of a PAC 10 rule, he was not allowed to participate in the rookie camp or OTAs (organized team activities) until the spring quarter was over at the University of Washington. Ross did finish his classes and graduated in the time away.
Once he was allowed to participate, he was limited while he recovered from shoulder surgery. The knee injury came shortly after he was cleared for full participation.
“For a guy who’s had limited reps because of the injuries, he’s in a remarkably good place,” wide receiver coach James Urban said. “He’s worked diligently.
“I’ve told him over the last bunch of weeks: ‘Even though you’re not playing, I want you to prepare like a starter and don’t think this an exercise in futility. If and when the time comes when you’re healthy and we think you’re good enough to help us win then, then you’re already prepared.’
“He’s done that very well.”
Ross has spent extra time catching passes from Andy Dalton since camp opened in July, but even Dalton admits it’s hard to measure how well Ross has the system down until he plays.
“We’ll see,” Dalton said. “We really don’t know what his timeline is. He’s obviously had the injuries that have kept him out, and with his (graduation) he was not able to be here for OTAs. With training camp he only got to practice for a little bit. Whenever he’s healthy, we’ll find him ways to get him the ball because of his talent, ability and elite speed.”
Ross’ speed is beyond elite. He ran a 4.22 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, the fastest ever recorded there. He had five touchdowns of 90 yards or more at Washington.
Lewis thinks Ross can develop into a threat like T.Y. Hilton, who comes to town with Colts. Hilton, a 5-foot-10, 183 pounds, is built like Ross, 5-11, 190. Hilton led the NFL in reception yards last year and his averaging 19 yards a catch this year.
“You would want him to continue to evolve into a player that has that kind of capabilities, no question,” Lewis said.
There were health questions on the Ross coming into the draft. He missed all of the 2015 season after ACL surgery on the same knee he injured this year.
The Bengals were relieved that this was just a sprain. Ross’ knee is structurally sound. It was a matter of getting over the soreness and inflammation.
This, of course, is not how Ross and Bengals hoped the year would go. He was drafted to take the pressure off Green. Without another deep threat, teams can double Green without risk at times, i.e., the second half of the Pittsburgh game.
For Ross, it has been tough to be a spectator.
“I think it would be frustrating for anybody,” he said. “When you get to this league, you don’t want to watch. It’s tough watching, regardless of where you were drafted.”
That frustration could end this week. Will it? As Lewis always says when asked about Ross: “We’ll see.”