John Ross: An inside look at his struggles and what's next for the Bengals speedster

An inside look at John Ross' struggles and his path to redemption
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John Ross sat down in his California home with a smile and a grey shirt that read “JORDAN” in white and red letters.

The 24-year-old hadn’t finished ‘The Last Dance’ yet, but the final few episodes were in his queue. Life hasn’t changed much for Ross this offseason, despite a worldwide pandemic shutting down most of the country. He’s still training in small groups, which is something he’s done in the past. Not being at the Bengals’ facility for OTA’s and other offseason work is a bit odd, but he’s adjusted accordingly.

Ross sounded different than he had in the past. He was more sure of himself, more comfortable. Ready for what’s next.

“My confidence level is through the roof right now,” Ross said. “I’m trying to make sure everything that I do is put in place for me to have a successful year. It doesn’t just do me justice; it does our offense justice — our quarterback and the guys around me. When I’m at my best, I think I can play at a high level. I think I’ve kind of showed that a little bit last year, but I want to stay consistent. I think that’s another big thing I need to work on — my consistency.”

Ross is in the final year of his contract. The speedy wide receiver has dealt with injuries in each of his first three NFL seasons. He’s played in 24 out of a possible 48 games since the Bengals selected him with the No. 9 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Ross has suffered knee, shoulder and groin injuries during his first three seasons in the NFL. 

He changed the way he takes care of his body this offseason. He sees a masseuse and a sports doctor two times a week. He’s also in the process of seeing another Olympic sports doctor on a regular basis.

The fourth-year player admits investing into his body sooner could’ve kept him healthier over the past few seasons. If only he’d taken the advice of a former teammate.

“In college, someone gave me advice. I never listened,” Ross said. “Hau'oli Kikaha used to tell me ‘bro, you’re so fast, you’re like a Ferrari. You need to take care of your body.’ He said ‘do you see people driving a Ferrari everyday?’ It was a great analogy because you don’t. That’s not an everyday car. So what he’s trying to tell me is ‘you’re not built like I am. You’re not like an everyday go hard type of person. You got to take care of your body a different way than I have to because you run at a different speed. Your body just translates to workouts different than the average player.’

“It didn’t make sense to me because I felt like ‘I’m playing at a high level. We’re playing at the same high level. The things that you can do I definitely can do.’ As I get older I definitely learn. Speaking to DeSean Jackson, A.J. Green and Darqueze Dennard — those guys have been the three biggest guys in my career that always sit back and tell me a bunch of things and give me great advice.”

Ross isn’t sure what the future holds, but he knows he can’t dwell on the past. He’s frustrated with his lack of production. He hates being injured.

He knows he can make an impact on the field. That hasn’t always been the case.

Ross’ confidence was shaken during his rookie season. It’s no secret that former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis didn’t want to draft him. Ross wasn’t his guy.

It didn’t help that he fumbled on his first NFL touch against Houston and didn’t get another opportunity the rest of the night.

“I think that kind of slowed me down mentally, like ‘wow, what am I doing wrong?’” Ross said. “Just a younger mindset. Not even being ready. I think that was the biggest thing — an immature kid not knowing what was coming at them and just everything that was put on my plate. I wasn’t necessarily ready for it mentally and I think the kind of took me away from who I was at that time.”

College Days

Ross was arguably the best wide receiver in the country during his final season at Washington.

Greg Cosell of NFL Films didn’t see any weaknesses in Ross’ game when he watched his tape before the draft. Cosell loved his versatility and thought he would make an instant impact in the NFL.

How could a player that had more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns in 14 games suddenly lose his confidence just a few months later?

“Will I ever be ready and ready enough to play in the league?” Ross remembers asking himself during his rookie season. “On top of me continuously being hurt. I think it put me in a negative space mentally. I think you have to be at your best to be one of the best in the league. If I’m never feeling good mentally or physically then I’ll never be able to play at a high level. That kind of took me away from ‘I’m the fastest guy in the NFL or I’m this good or I can do that.’ It just made me feel like I’m never going to be able to do that if I’m not feeling this way. It kind of just took me away from everything that I know that I can do.”

Back to Washington

The 2019 season got off to a much different start. The Bengals traveled to Seattle to take on the Seahawks. It was Zac Taylor’s first game as head coach. He made it a priority to get Ross involved early.

First, it was a crossing route across the middle of the field that was good for a first down. Then, Taylor dialed up another play for Ross, this time a flea-flicker that worked to perfection. The 33-yard touchdown gave the Bengals the lead.

On the very next possession Andy Dalton found Ross again, this time for a leaping 55-yard touchdown that ensured the Bengals would have a halftime lead. Ross’ leaping grab was one of the best of his career.

He finished with seven receptions for 158 yards and two touchdowns. He gave fans a glimpse of what he could do against a formidable Seattle defense.

“That showed me that I really can play in this league… That I really can be elite,” Ross said. “That showed me that I had it in me all along, I just got to let it out. Stop thinking so much, have a good time and just play football. My first two years I kind of lost the feeing and the fun of playing football because of everything that was going around — the injuries, a lot of things going on in the building. I just felt like I let it get to me too much. A lot of stuff that didn’t have to get to me. Now I’m maturing and learning a little bit more about myself and learning how the business works. You learn to let stuff go. You learn to get in a different head space and a different mindset based off of what you do every single day.”

Drafting a Replacement

Everyone knew the Bengals were going to select Joe Burrow with the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. They didn’t know who Cincinnati was going to take in the second round.

The Bengals added Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins at No. 33. At 6-4, 215 pounds, Higgins looks like an A.J. Green clone. It’s safe to assume that he was drafted to replace Ross in 2021.

Ross is in the final year of his contract and the organization declined his fifth-year option.

“I’m in such a competition with myself, they could’ve brought in Antonio Brown, they could bring a young Jerry Rice back in here,” Ross said with a laugh. “And not in no way, shape or form am I saying I’m better than anybody, but I know who I am and I know where I stand and I know what I can do. I believe in myself 100 times more than I ever did before. I think Tee is a great addition. The plans that we have in place, I know we utilize a lot of receivers, but it’s just no different for me.”

Ross has been focused on himself this offseason. What can he do to ensure he’s 100 percent ready to play a full season, both mentally and physically?

He continues to work with former Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and trainer Ortege Jenkins.

“They do a great job of beating it in my head that I am who I am,” Ross said. “I’ve been the same person since college. I got to continue to be that guy. It all comes from within. That was my mindset going into last year and I think I started off really well.”

Houshmandzadeh has been one of Ross’ biggest advocates. The duo has worked together for the past three years.

Goals for 2020

Ross only has one number on his mind when it comes to the 2020 season.

“Sixteen games and more,” he said bluntly. “January 1, 2020 that’s the first thing I said, ‘make sure you are ready to play 16 games and more this year’ because that has obviously been my biggest my problem.”

Ross believes he’s stronger than he’s ever been. He’s confident that he can perform at a high level as long as he can stay healthy.

“I want to be mentally ready because if I’m physically ready, my game will speak for itself,” Ross said. “If I’m not there mentally, I won’t be able to be there physically. I understand that I have to continue working on myself, working on my mental in order for me to be the best that I want to be.”

Part of his mental growth includes social media. Ross used to dwell on it. He would read every comment and watch every video.

“I used to let it defeat me all the time,” he admits. “I would let it get to me. My agent used to tell me all the time to ‘stop looking at comments.’ One time he took my phone from me and kept it because he saw me looking at Twitter. It was almost like I didn’t even mean to, but it just happened.”

Ross’ growth has impacted him both on and off the field. He recently celebrated his son Julian’s third birthday. His face lights up anytime he talks about his son. That’s something that hasn’t changed during his time in the NFL, but his confidence and his demeanor are much different.

“In life too, just as a father, as a family member, as a teammate or whatever the case may be, I’ve been doing so many things well when it comes to me being in a different headspace,” he said. “I’m very proud of where I am now, but I still got a lot of work to do.”

Ross’ fourth season at Washington was the year he broke out and became one of the nation’s best wide receivers. He’s hoping an offseason full of work produces similar results in 2020.

“I’m paying attention more to what I need to do to stay on the field,” Ross said. “What I need to do to be successful. Put more stuff into my arsenal to where when I get out there, it’s almost like a walk in the park. I’m just trying to focus on myself. I’m competing with myself. I’m not competing with anybody else. I gotta do my job first before I can go out there and compete with anybody else. If I don’t do my job right, then I won’t be out there anyway.”