In this season where almost nothing has gone as planned for the Cincinnati Bengals, one of the biggest flips of the script was on full display Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium.
That’s where the guy many once considered to be a pariah showed he has become the savior of the team.
Joe Mixon is one of the few things that has gone right for the Bengals this season.
Sunday, the second-year back, ran for 129 yards and two touchdowns to lead Cincinnati to a 30-16 victory over the Oakland Raiders. The victory snapped a five-game losing streak for the Bengals and was just their second win in the past nine games.
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For Mixon, it marked the first time in his career he’s had back to back 100 yard games.
He rushed for 111 on the road last Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers and he now stands just five yards short of a 1,000-yard season, even while missing two games early in the year due to injury.
“We said two or three weeks ago ‘We’ve got to continue riding on Joe’s shoulders,’” head coach Marvin Lewis said afterward.
Rather than riding Mixon, there was a time not long ago when most people were deriding him.
When the Bengals took him in the second round out of Oklahoma in the 2017 draft, the local ABC-TV affiliate in Cincinnati produced an editorial where the resonant phrase was “enough is enough.”
The station – like others in the community – suggested fans boycott the Bengals over the Mixon pick and instead donate the money they’d spend for tickets to a charity that dealt with stopping the physical abuse of women.
There were people in the NFL who had similar negative thoughts when it came to Mixon.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said he believed in second chances, but he thought a guy like Mixon forfeited that good will when involved in violence against a woman.
Just before the draft, the NFL refused to invite Mixon to its annual combine where players show off their skills for teams.
Meanwhile, the video of Mixon punching a woman in Norman, Oklahoma – the blow causing her to bounce off a table and break her jaw – became a much-watched YouTube horror film.
The incident happened in the summer of 2014 and Oklahoma officials suspended Mixon for the season. He pled to a misdemeanor assault charge and later, when sued by the woman he had argued with and punched, he settled out of court and offered a public apology.
There was probation and community service and there were a few interviews were Mixon vowed to be a good citizen and make amends, though in 2016 he did get in a tiff with a parking lot employee and was suspended for a game.
He played two seasons for Oklahoma and decided to forgo his final two years of college ball for the pros, though he saw his stock drop. Considered a first-round pick, he was projected to tumble to the third or fourth round because some people questioned his moral fiber.
The Bengals owner Mike Brown has always considered himself something of the Father Flanagan of wayward football players and Cincinnati took Mixon in the second round. He was the 48th player drafted.
Since then – at least by all public accounts – he’s kept his nose clean. And he’s certainly emerging as one of the best young running backs in the league.
He doesn’t especially like to talk about his ascension from pariah to savior – especially in the immediate flush of victory as was the case in the Bengals’ locker room right after Sunday’s game – but when the crowd of reporters left and he was alone, he did touch on it.
“I just want to prove the Bengals right,” he said quietly. “I want to show everybody why they took me, show everybody what they saw in me.”
Although completing his second season in the NFL, he’s still – at 22 – one of the youngest guys in the Bengals dressing room. And yet he’s the guy many players looked to to help lead the team out of the deep slide it had been in.
One player after another Sunday talked about his positive attitude Mixon brings to the dressing room, his work ethic on the practice field and, of course, his jaw-dropping talents he puts on display come game time.
The latter was especially evident early in the second quarter when he burst through an opening in the Raiders defensive front, then used a juke step to freeze safety Karl Joseph as he scampered 47 yards before being knocked out of bounds on the Oakland 20.
Seven plays later he scored on a 1-yard burst to put Cincinnati up 14-0.
On the Bengals sideline, free safety Jessie Bates watched and marveled.
“Joe is Joe,” he said afterward. “I don’t expect anything else from him. He brings a lot of energy to the team. Whenever you see Joe running the ball like that, it makes everyone else play hard.”
And now – with many of the team’s stars lost for the season to injury – that’s more important than ever for the 6-8 Bengals.
“I enjoy it a lot that everybody is looking at me to be a leader,” Mixon said. “It’s one thing to talk about it, but at the same time you got to do it.
“And at the end of the day, regardless of the situation, I know I’ve got to be a leader and put the team on my back. If I lead by example, I’m sure that they’ll follow.”
During the slide, he chastised some players for an attitude he feared was creeping in. He said everybody should give 100 percent, be all in or “just stay at home.”
Sunday he tweaked that message:
“I’m just going to do whatever I can to get the boys working hard. As long as I’m leading by example, I’m sure that will make them drive and work hard. They’ve all bought in. Now we’ve got two weeks left and I’m going to do everything I can to put us in a position to win.
“I’m just really thankful for this opportunity now. After a game like this, it feels great to be in a position like this.”
For Joe Mixon, it’s been great to flip the script.
It’s been great to go from pariah to savior