CINCINNATI — Little seemed to go as planned for the Cincinnati Bengals this season as they dealt with a slew of injuries, fired their defensive coordinator midway through and failed to make the playoffs for a third straight year.
But the Bengals got exactly what they were hoping for – and more – from running back Joe Mixon and wide receiver Tyler Boyd.
Already eliminated from the playoffs, Cincinnati can begin to turn its attention to the future as it wraps up its final two games, and Boyd and Mixon paint a brighter long-term picture.
The Bengals (6-8) travel to Cleveland (6-7-1) on Sunday, and by the end of that trip, Boyd and Mixon should both be 1,000-yard performers.
Boyd, who already has 1,028 yards receiving, reached his milestone last week against the Raiders before exiting with a knee injury that caused him to miss practice Wednesday, and Mixon sits at 995 yards rushing heading into this week’s game at Cleveland.
“As a coach you have to keep in mind, 'Hey, some of these guys are just in the beginning of what they can be,’ . . . and just keep coaching them that way,” Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said when asked about how exciting the development of Boyd and Mixon is for the long term. “The big picture I'll hold for a couple of weeks still.”
Mixon certainly isn’t ready to look beyond these next two weeks. Even though the team can’t change its fate, he views the last two games as opportunities to “be the best Joe” he can be and help the Bengals finish strong.
The 2017 second-round draft pick leads the AFC in rushing yards despite missing two games because of injury and being limited to 17 carries or less in seven games. The Bengals have had just one AFC rushing champion in their history. Paul Robinson won the rushing title in the team’s first season in 1968.
“I mean, it's cool,” Mixon said of individual success. “I'd rather have team success. I really don't care about the individual awards. With team success, that's when everybody's happy. I would have been better if we were going to the playoffs, but we're not. We have to look forward to these next two weeks, have as much fun as possible. This might be the last time around for a couple of people in the locker room. We know how it goes, it's business, but at the end of the day we have to have as much fun as possible and go out and try to find a way to get a win.”
For Boyd, the future might be all he has to look forward to. After topping 1,000 yards receiving with his second catch of the day Sunday against the Raiders, he made two more plays, including the first touchdown, and then left with a knee injury shortly before halftime and never returned. He did not practice Wednesday and head coach Marvin Lewis said he did not have any updates on Boyd’s injury.
Boyd became the focal point of the passing game this season, first when A.J. Green was getting double covered and then taking over when Green went out with a toe injury that now has him on injured reserve.
His performance was especially impressive coming off a disappointing 2017 campaign in which he battled injury and finished with just 225 yards. However, Boyd showed flashes throughout the offseason workout program and training camp, and the team clearly anticipated a big year from him. The Bengals cut veteran Brandon Lafell in the preseason as a sign of faith in their young receivers, and Boyd did not disappoint.
“Andy (Dalton) and I were talking back in OTAs and training camp, and we were saying every day, ‘Man, Tyler looks awesome. Tyler’s going to have a huge year,’ ” quarterback Jeff Driskel said. “All the momentum that he built up in the offseason program really carried over this season. He’s been a huge playmaker for us. He’s made tough plays all year long, and he’s going to continue to do so. He’s had a great year, and he’s a guy we want to get the ball.”
Boyd had 603 yards his rookie season, and although he played just 10 games last year, he finished strong by making a memorable 49-yard touchdown catch with 44 seconds left to beat the Ravens and keep them out of the playoffs.
Even when Green was healthy this season, Boyd started seeing double coverage and beating it, proving himself a reliable weapon out of the slot for numerous big plays. He needed just 10 yards on Sunday to reach his milestone, and with it, he became the first Bengals player other than Green to hit 1,000 since Chad Johnson did it in 2009 for the seventh time in his career.
“Obviously, it's a huge milestone, a goal I always wanted to accomplish coming into the league,” Boyd said after the game. “Now that I've done it, I'm on to the next goal now. I'm going to think about it and let it marinade but it's time to reset my goals and think other spectacular things I can achieve. It was a great day for me.”
It was fitting then that his seventh touchdown celebration of the season Sunday included a nod to Johnson, as he emulated Ochocinco’s well known “Riverdance” celebration. Boyd said he considered also doing CPR on the ball like Johnson had in one celebration but thought it was early enough in the game that he could possibly get another chance.
Mixon said he doesn’t have a favorite touchdown celebration or anyone he tries to pattern his after, but he and Boyd are both known for their energy and the passion they bring to the team even when there aren’t moments to celebrate.
It’s easy to read their frustration after losses, but they are two sparks on the sideline when Cincinnati needs a lift and both said they feed off the other. That’s something the Bengals don’t want to lose.
“I like playing with TB,” Mixon said. “He’s a competitor. The stuff that he brings to the table, the stuff that I bring to the table, I just try to get everybody to rub off the same way. TB comes in week in and week out to work and that’s what I try to do. We’re just trying to get everybody to get on the same page, and TB is going to keep being TB and doing what he’s doing and I feel like, knowing him, he takes the stress off me. I would hope that I take the stress off him.”