John Ross couldn’t help but think fate might just be stacked against him. After a hot start finally had the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver feeling confident about his play, a freak injury sent him back to the sidelines.
The 2017 first-round draft pick has spent too much of his young NFL career not able to contribute the way he was expected because of injuries. This time it was a sternoclavicular injury that he quickly found out could have been life-threatening. He suffered the injury in Game 4 at Pittsburgh when Joe Haden made a routine tackle on him after a catch, and the shoulder joint popped backward close to an artery.
Now, Ross is back after an eight-game absence while on injured reserve. He will be active Sunday at Cleveland (5-7), and the Bengals (1-11) finally will have almost their entire starting lineup available as they go for a second straight win.
“This was a very rare injury that was very painful, so it was something I knew I couldn’t control, but you feel like you’ve been doing everything right, living right, eating right, feeling good, and then this happens,” Ross said. “It almost feels like it’s supposed to happen, but I talked to my grandparents. They are people I can turn to all the time, and they told me, ‘You can’t look at it like that. Bad things happen to good people all the time.’ I just had to let it go, take a couple breathers and I’m blessed to play again this year, so I’m happy about that.”
Ross was the team’s top receiver through the first four games with 16 catches for 328 yards and three touchdowns. He had 270 yards and all three scores over the first two games, an important early contribution for a guy who played 17 snaps as a rookie and only made 21 catches all of last year (though seven were for touchdowns).
When the injury occurred this season, he slipped into a “woe is me” phase for about six weeks, he said.
“It was very frustrating, because one you feel like you’ve finally got it and you finally figured it out and I felt like I was so ready and everyone see it was going up,” Ross said. “Then to have it at a standstill kind of sucks.”
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The speedy receiver said initially he didn’t feel the pain in his shoulder because he hit his head on the ground, but the pain quickly became intense and when he learned it was a sternoclavicular injury. Ross knew from Darqueze Dennard’s experience how serious it could be.
Ross knew all the “wrong questions” to ask the doctors.
“I asked him, ‘Could it be life-threatening?’ And he said, ‘Definitely,’” Ross said. “He said it was a couple inches off or something like that from hitting the artery. I didn’t want to know any more after that. I said, ‘As long as you fix me, I’m fine.’”
It took about three weeks for Ross to start physically feeling better, and he had been doing some work on the rehab fields before the Bengals were able to bring him back to practices Nov. 13, which was the earliest he could be designated for return from injured reserve. He was activated to the roster Tuesday and joined the first-team offense for the first time Wednesday after a few weeks on the scout team.
Ross said it was difficult to temper his work load after he started feeling better, but that had been his problem with injuries in the past, so he tried to take it slowly. Having a few weeks with the scout team was helpful to ease back in, he said, particularly when he was taking passes from Andy Dalton before he returned to his starting role last week.
As Dalton prepares for his second straight start, he looks forward to having another weapon on the field for the Browns defense to worry about stopping.
“The whole speed factor,” Dalton said. “Regardless of what he’s doing, wherever he lines up, they’re going to know that he’s the fastest guy in the league. His ability to play at that level and to have that speed on the field helps us out a lot.”
The Bengals are one player — A.J. Green — away from having everyone coach Zac Taylor was counting on to lead his offense. Left tackle Cordy Glenn has been back to a starting role for two games now, and Ross should open things up for Tyler Boyd and running back Joe Mixon.
“He’s talented — he’s first-round pick for a lot of reasons,” Taylor said. “He cares about football, cares about winning and cares about his teammates. He’s a good guy to have out there from a chemistry standpoint. One of his top traits is his speed, and defenses are always concerned about that. He certainly has it.”
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