- Tom Archdeacon columnist
It was a poor choice of words, but it didn’t cause a stir or even a second thought like it once would have.
“You know what was real nice though?” Dave Lapham, the former Cincinnati Bengals lineman and now the radio color commentator asked Joe Mixon in his on-the-air post-game interview.
“A lot (of what you did) was right between the tackles, Nothing fancy. Just hit ‘em right in the mouth”
And the Cincinnati Bengals rookie running back just smiled and nodded in agreement.
He had just had his greatest day as a pro, running for 114 yards and an 11-yard touchdown on 23 carries while also catching three passes for another 51 yards in the 30-16 victory over the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium.
He became the Bengals’ first 100-yard rusher this season and in the locker room afterward no one was talking or thinking about the past.
Not about what happened that July evening in Norman, Oklahoma three years ago and not even what happened after the Bengals played the Pittsburgh Steelers last month at Heinz Field.
Late Sunday afternoon the focus was on what had just transpired with the Browns and how it might foretell Mixon’s future fortunes.
“He’s an extremely talented guy,” Bengals center Russell Bodine said. “He has a chance to be really special in the league.”
A few years ago a lot of folks were thinking that was a possibility when Mixon came out of California as a schoolboy sensation and was about to take up residence in the Oklahoma Sooners backfield.
Then, just before his freshman season, came the ugly, much-publicized incident with a woman in a Norman café. He had made a homophobic slur to her friend, then followed her into the restaurant.
They exchanged words, she pushed him, he lunged at her, she slapped him and then he hit her in the face. She fell. Her face hit a table and she ended up with a broken jaw that would be wired shut after surgery.
He eventually pled to a reduced charge, did community service and was suspended from the team for the entire 2014 season. It took a couple of years, but the police video was eventually released and seeing the brutality of the moment caused another uproar.
The woman filed suit and she and Mixon settled privately after he made a public apology.
He went on to play and star for the Sooners, but after another argument with a parking lot attendant got him suspended for a game, some NFL teams treated him like he was radioactive. He wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine and fell out of the first round in the 2017 draft.
The Bengals, who had met with him privately before the draft, took him in the second round and there were no ripples until after Steelers romped over them this season and Mixon groused to the media about not getting any carries in the second half.
That drew the ire of head coach Marvin Lewis who said the rookie “should show maturity.”
And by everyone’s account on the Bengals locker room Sunday that’s just what Mixon has done.
Cincinnati came into the game ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards and yards her carry. Mixon was averaging just 2.9 yards a carry and his biggest output had been 62 yards against Green Bay.
But instead of pouting or posturing, he has been meeting with his offensive linemen to talk about their job and his and what he needs to do on the field.
They had another meeting last Friday and two days later it paid dividends like never before.
“I’ve learned you just have to trust eaxh other and just keep believing in the process,” Mixon said.
He also has come to understand it’s about more than just him. That showed as he made several key blocks on blitzing Browns defenders Sunday.
“We’ve got a $96 million quarterback to protect,” he laughed. “I got to do my part to keep him protected.”
Left guard Clint Boling said you can see Mixon grow each week:
“The past couple of weeks he’s done a good job staying with his blocks and running north and south. He’s not always trying to do something extra and taking minus yards. So now he gets those three and four yard gains and every once in a whole something pops.”
Most impressive Sunday was Mixon’s effort once he was hit. Pro Football Focus tracked his runs against the Browns and found he averaged an additional 2.83 yards a carry after contact.
“He did some tremendous things today,” Bengals right tackle Andre Smith said. “I happened to get behind him on some of those longer runs and to see him run hard and lower those pads was impressive. I’m excited to block for him.”
The 21-year-old Mixon feels the same about his lineman and afterward his youthful exuberance bubbled over into a promise:
“If I can get the lineman together, I want to take them out to get something to eat.”
“We can go to Ruth’s Chris, or wherever they want.”
“That’s a high-end steak house,” someone said, “and those lineman can eat.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said a little less forcefully. “Ruth Chris…the Cheesecake Factory. They deserve it.”
He was asked if he was back tracking: “Maybe it will end up Waffle House.”
He shook his head: “It ain’t gonna be Waffle House I can promise you that. I want them to go where they want…on me.”
Across the dressing room Bodine liked the sound of that. Like everyone else on this day, when it came to Joe Mixon, he was thinking about the future.
“I’m all for dinner. Where we going?”