CINCINNATI -- The Bengals' last-place offense needs a spark, but No. 9 overall pick John Ross doesn't appear to be the player who will provide it.
With the offense struggling, why can't the rookie wideout get on the field?
Ross has played only 11 offensive snaps this season and was a healthy scratch against the Jaguars last week.
As he stood on the sidelines in sweatpants on Sunday, Ross wished he could help after star wideout A.J. Green was ejected.
"When A.J. is down ... you're like, ‘Now I’ve got to step up,'” Ross said. "But it’s hard for me because I’m sitting on the sidelines and I can’t. ... In my head, I’m letting him down.”
It's been hard for Ross to understand why he can't contribute like the other rookies, but he's done his best to understand and make the improvements to get on the field.
"I think I could help contribute," Ross said. "It's tough for me to say what I think I can do, because I don't like talking like I'm some type of 'a guy' where I can just do whatever I think can do. I live in the moment, I work hard, and I'd rather just show you more than I can tell you."
It's likely nobody in the Bengals' facility anticipated they would still be waiting on Ross at this point, even though the coaches understood that drafting him would require patience. The Bengals pondered other options at No. 9, but one of their top needs was a vertical threat who could stretch the field and inject speed into a listless offense.
Ross, who set a record at the NFL scouting combine with a 4.22-second 40-yard dash, seemed like that guy. He was ranked among the top wide receivers in the draft despite some concerns regarding his durability. The 5-foot-11, 188-pound Ross was coming off shoulder surgery and had torn both his meniscus and ACL in 2015, but the Bengals felt comfortable with his medical history after he passed their examinations.
“We’re really excited,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said after selecting Ross. “He’s obviously a guy who had surgery and should be ready to go right about the start of the season. That would be the only question mark going in with him.”
It would be easy now to call Ross a reach at No. 9 overall, but Lewis said no other teams were interested in trading up in the draft at the time.
Ross headed to Cincinnati after the draft, but wasn't allowed to participate in OTAs while he finished his degree at Washington. When he came back for veteran minicamp in mid-June, he still wasn't medically cleared. He was only allowed to watch practice and couldn't even lift weights.
Ross spent most of the summer easing into things before fully participating for the first time on Aug. 14. He made his debut in the third week of the preseason and, because he badly needed the work, played in the final preseason game as well.
That game shaped his season. Ross went down with a knee injury after just a few snaps. It caused him to miss the season opener, and perhaps limited him to just five snaps in Week 2. It didn't help that Ross fumbled in that game and later re-injured his knee.
The setback cost him weeks of development and put him behind the other six wide receivers.
Teams usually keep five or six receivers on their active roster, with the sixth receiver often a key special-teams player. In the Bengals' case, every receiver could contribute on offense as well, which made for a fierce competition.
The coaches weren’t keen on the idea of bringing Ross in to just run a route or two when other receivers presented better options. That's why Ross was not a factor when he came back for six snaps against the Colts in Week 8. Ross was only up because Cody Core was out with a concussion, and Lewis said Ross wasn't part of the game plan.
It was hard for Ross to understand at first, but he admitted he started to see why after some soul searching.
"When I was coming back, I was in for two plays, and then I’d be exhausted for two drives. It’s tough when you’re not in shape,” Ross said. "In this league, everybody is fast. It doesn’t matter how fast I can run. People can line me up all day and tell me to run a 4.22 but after the first one I probably won’t get back to that 4.22. It just depends on how well I condition myself. That was hard for me to see because I thought in my head, ‘I’m finally healthy; I need to be out there.’ But after I sat down and evaluated and looked at the film, I didn’t look the same I looked last spring, and that’s what they mean."
The coaches believe it’s more than just running routes -- it’s knowing how to read coverages and adjust those routes and do everything consistently every day.
“John has had three weeks of practice now. Let’s let him practice and let’s get him comfortable playing football again before we put him back in there,” Lewis said. “When he knows what to do and how to do it all the time, and when he can play productively, then he’ll play fast, he’ll play with confidence. But he wouldn’t be very confident [right now]. Each day, he gets more confident with playing football. He hasn’t been playing football. That’s the thing. You have to [practice] 11-on-11 enough to be comfortable with it.”
Lewis added: “It was three weeks ago, that every time he went on the ground, everybody held their breath. You’re going to get knocked down in football, and you’ve got to get up, go back to the huddle and do it again. He’s not made of glass -- he’s not going to break every time he falls down -- yet he’s got to practice football and continue to do it.”