The only person Joe Mixon treated worse than the Cleveland Browns in the season finale Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium was one of the game officials just after the final gun.
After he had rushed for a career-high 162 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Cincinnati Bengals to a 33-23 victory – the most glorious moment in their otherwise dismal 2-14 season – the super-enthused, third-year running back pulled off his orange and black striped helmet and with a powerful backswing, tried to bowl it some 15 yards to the sidelines and a waiting equipment manager.
But as that exact moment, an unsuspecting official stepped in front of him and Mixon caught him full force in the legs with his just released toss. The guy dropped to the turf and writhed a few seconds in pain, as Mixon and others attended to him until he could finally stand and stumble off.
“That was crazy,” Mixon said as he stood at his locker afterward. “It was an unfortunate situation. I tried to throw my helmet to the equipment people and ‘BOOM! I just took him out. I tried to help him up a little bit.
“I’m sorry, ref. My bad.
“I owe you lunch, wherever you’re at!”
As for the Browns, Mixon ate their lunch for the second time this month..
Three weeks ago in Cleveland he ran for what was then a career-high 146 yards in 27-19 loss to the Browns.
Sunday he was even more impressive as he lowered his shoulder into Browns defenders and bowled them over, stiff-armed them to keep them at bay and other times simply juked them out of position and in one case leaped right over the surprised Browns defender,
Mixon outshined Browns superb running back Nick Chubb, who came into the game leading the NFL in rushing with 1,453 yards, but managed just 41 on 13 carries against the Bengals.
Asked if he took special delight outperforming Chubb, Mixon shook his head: “I just try to be the best version of me each time out. I just got to keep building on that.”
And in his first three NFL seasons he’s built quite a foundation.
After rushing for 626 yards as a rookie, he ran for an AFC best 1,168 yards last season. This year – after an underwhelming start to the season when the Bengals wrongly (rookie coach Zac Taylor now admits) abandoned the run – he has come on in a fury the last six games of the season.
In Week 10 he rushed for 114 yards against Buffalo. The big game in Cleveland game came in Week 14. That was followed by 136 yards rushing against the Patriots. Slowed by the flu last week in Miami, he managed just 50 yards in 21 carries. Sunday he set the tone early when he rushed for 41 yards just the third time he touched the ball and then another 21 yards two carries later. He finished the season 1,134 yards.
He has become the Bengals best offensive weapon and on a day when some Bengal veterans – most notably quarterback Andy Dalton — may have been involved in their last game ever with Cincinnati, Mixon showed the franchise does have one cornerstone of offense to build on.
After Sunday’s game, Browns trumpeted receiver Odell Beckham Jr, met Mixon on the field and swapped jerseys with him. Each player first placed his shirt on the turf and autographed it before handing it over.
Coming into the game Mixon believes the Browns – who ended their campaign a disappointing 6-10 – didn’t have a lot of respect for the Bengals. He felt it’s that way with a lot of teams.
“When people play us they think it should be a cakewalk,” he said. “I know this season wasn’t pretty, but I’m happy we never quit. We fought and finished strong today. I’m happy we went out with a win, especially against the Browns. We’ve got bragging rights.”
After the game several Bengals — from Dalton to center Trey Hopkins — said Mixon is the player who lifted them more than anybody Sunday.
“Joe is the heart of our offense,” Hopkins said. “He brings a passion and a fire we all need. It’s definitely electric and definitely infectious. He plays with such heart you can’t help be effected by it. All day we fed off him and I think he fed off us.”
In just three years, the 23-year-old Mixon seems to really understand what it means to be a pro.
Tight end Tyler Eifert talked about how hard he runs on every play.
In turn, Mixon appreciates his teammates’ success.
When Randy Bullock kicked a 46- yard field goal with 1:55 left to put the Bengals up by 10, Mixon ran from the sidelines to embrace him on the field.
After the game he went out of his way to praise the line, talk about his respect for Dalton and salute receivers like Alex Erickson, John Ross and Eifert.
On game days no one interacts with the fans any more than he does either. And Sunday when he scored his second touchdown, he ran to the end zone seats and handed the ball first to a middle-aged man who had a Mixon sign. Then, seeing the man’s 12-year-old son nearby, he took the ball back from the guy and gave it to the boy, who promptly put his head down and wept in joy.
It turns out he has a history with the father and son, Bill and J.T Kauffman.
They’re from Tulsa, Okla. and avidly follow the Oklahoma Sooners for whom Mixon played. The embraced Mixon when he played there and now support him here.
They told our Laurel Pfahler after the game that Mixon checks on the boy during the season, asking how he’s doing and how his grades are.
“When I was going to the tunnel at halftime I saw little Joe (JT) and he was yelling, ‘Joe! Joe! We’re brothers.’ We had a little conversation and I asked where he was sitting.
“We are brothers, that’s why I gave him the ball.”
After the game the Bengals gave Mixon a game ball as well.
“Yeah Coach gave it to me,” he said as he cradled the trophy. “So I’m gonna go home, put it in a case, just reminisce and get ready for next year.”
Well, he does have one other task
He did promise to buy that hobbled ref lunch.
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