CINCINNATI — John Ross only knows one speed when moving.
Fast. And the type of speed the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver runs with is unrelenting.
But in his first two years in the NFL, Ross didn’t know how to convert his strongest trait into catches and touchdowns. As he enters a critical season, the answer might be to slow down.
It goes against every fast-twitch fiber of Ross’ 5-foot-11 frame. If he wants to stay in Cincinnati, he believes this year has to be different.
“It’s obvious how much of a business this league is. So I want to continue to basically do what I came here to do,” Ross said. “And that is perform, be productive.”
Ross is known for two things. In 2017, he ran a record-breaking 4.22-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. He also tends to regularly be dealing with various injuries.
Since Cincinnati took him with the ninth overall pick in the 2017 draft, Ross has struggled to stay healthy. He played in 16 games in two seasons and missed all of this year’s preseason games with a hamstring problem that perfectly explains Ross’ dilemma.
This offseason, Ross amped up his training regimen. He went back home to California and worked with former Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh on crafting his on-field habits. Then he’d drive across metropolitan Los Angeles to Long Beach and arrive at Ortege Jenkins’ studio for strength and conditioning.
Jenkins has known Ross long before the pair started training together two years ago. An Arizona quarterback from 1997 to 2000, Jenkins went to Jordan High School with Ross’ father in Long Beach; Ross also graduated from Jordan before he went to the University of Washington.
“There’s been times where I’ve had to shut him down and I just told him you’ve gotta let the body rest, let the body recover,” Jenkins said. “He’s so focused on wanting to be great that he wants to push his body to the limits, which is good. But you have to be able to monitor that.”
Ross is among the Bengals who are dubbed “tempo violators” by first-year coach Zac Taylor. During walk-throughs or half-speed drills, Ross has a tendency to exceed the speed limit. Even in the group message thread with the team’s receivers, he acknowledges he does too much at times.
And that tends to get him hurt. The hamstring problem is a soft-tissue injury that is generally caused from doing too much, too quickly.
“The goal is to always get better,” Ross said. “If you feel like the last two years weren’t good enough, what are you going to do in the third year? Continue to strive and work harder. Sometimes I took it too far.”
Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd said he’s constantly telling Ross he doesn’t need to show everyone his speed. Cincinnati doesn’t need Ross to be fast all the time, Boyd said, they need him to be healthy.
“I think he just needs to loosen up a little bit,” Boyd said. “I think he’s a gamer. I don’t think he needs to go out there and continue to show us who he is and what he can do. Because we know.”
Ross knows this, too. He understands that if he isn’t on the field, he can’t show how productive he can be, which in turn hurts his chances of staying in Cincinnati long term.
And a lot of the external expectations have always revolved around Ross’ speed, specifically the 4.22 time he posted at the combine. But he said he has never believed that’s the reason the Bengals drafted him so early.
“Multiple coaches told me I would be a first-round receiver,” Ross said. “But I think it’s kind of made it to where coaches look at me like, ‘He has to do these certain type of things.’ But I know once they see me get out there and practice, they can see that I can do more than just run straight.”
After Ross had a fast practice on Wednesday, he walked back to the locker room with Bengals strength coach Joey Boese. Boese, who daily tracks everyone’s speed and maximum velocity, noticed Ross had a particularly fast practice. As the receiver continues to work his way back into the offense, Boese wanted to check and see how Ross felt.
Ross is feeling much better than he did a few weeks ago. Boese believes this could be a good weekend for Ross, which could be the catalyst for his best season.
It took Ross three years to finally figure out his body’s limits and what he is capable of doing for the Bengals. And even though the inability to slow down has hurt him at times, it’s one of the reasons he could be a key piece in Cincinnati’s offense.
“John, when he gets out on the field, he wants to compete,” Boese said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s going through individual [drills], he’s going through 7-on-7 or team periods, John’s running full speed all the time. That’s what you love about him.”