CINCINNATI — Troy Walters likes to play a game with his receiving group.
The Cincinnati Bengals wide receivers coach has arguably the most talented group of pass-catchers in the entire NFL, and he has a few secrets on how to keep them engaged throughout the week.
He puts together regular football trivia games for his wideouts. But this isn't bar trivia. No… Walters, a former Biletnikoff Award winner and eight-year NFL veteran, is quizzing his guys on a Football 501 level.
If we go bunch right baffle 3-jet rib staff, both the outside receivers run what route?
A: Swirl; B: Throttle; C: Bench; D: Scout.
The answer, of course, is A: Swirl. Walters has put together dozens of these questions on a quiz-game called Kahoot that he picked up as a teaching tool during the COVID-19 pandemic. The quicker you get the correct answer, the more points you're awarded. In one of the best position rooms in all of football, you can imagine how competitive this gets.
"I feel like a lot of them aren't my position," says Ja'Marr Chase, the X receiver for the Bengals, one of the best young wideouts the league has ever seen and one of the worst Kahoot players on the team. "In order for me to know them I have to know the Z, F and Y sometimes. I haven't come in first. I haven't been in top 5 yet."
With due respect to Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, the Bengals receiver triumvirate of Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd represent the most dynamic group in the league. Chase just had more receiving yards in a season than any rookie in history. Higgins racked up 107.5 yards per game from Week 12 on. In a crowded group, Boyd posted his fourth straight season with at least 800 receiving yards, one of just 10 players in the league to do that the past four years.
So much of their success on the field derives from their bonding away from the cameras and out of the spotlight. These guys genuinely like each other, and they've vacationed together from Miami to Las Vegas since last year.
This summer, when someone asked Walters about Chase leading the receivers room, he stopped them to note that Boyd leads the way. The seven-year veteran, a receiver Chase and Higgins grew up watching, has command of the room because of his unselfishness.
Last year during Week 6's 34-11 win against the Detroit Lions, Walters sat down on the bench next to Boyd, who was on his way to a one-catch-for-7-yards day. The coach began to tell Boyd to keep his head up and they'd try to get him the ball. Boyd nearly laughed his coach away, telling him the only thing that mattered was that they were winning.
"Of course you want to get the limelight and want to showcase yourself doing it, because we all know we can do it," Boyd says of the potential for any envy to creep in. "I've proven myself of being worthy of being a No. 1 and getting 1,000 yards. Tee just got his 1,000 yards. Tee's proven it. Chase has proven it, too. That being said, it's just something of us knowing that we all know what we're capable of. By the position we play, there will be limited targets. If you're the X you're going to get the majority of one-on-one matchups and the majority of target share because you're on the boundary on the short side. And vice versa with the Z.
"I'm always in the field. Sometimes I may have to do the dirty work where I run through a defender to clear out my boys. And I understand that role. But at the end of the day, I know I can line up anywhere on the field."
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Believing in Chase
This time last year, one of the best young receivers in NFL history couldn't catch anything.
Chase had four drops through two preseason contests at a time where many wondered whether the Bengals had erred in adding a receiver to a solid group instead of an offensive tackle like Penei Sewell.
Chase hadn't played in nearly two years, having opted out of the 2020 college football season to prepare for the NFL Draft where he'd be taken fifth overall. He was a better receiver than he was showing in these exhibitions, and because Walters knew that Chase wasn't wanting to drop passes, he opted to "speak life" into Chase rather than tear him down.
"He was just coming to me as a man letting me know that first off, he's played receiver. He's been in the league and he knows the pressure," Chase says. "And he knows the accountability that I have to have coming in and getting drafted. He was telling me how to come in and carry myself when I'm down and things aren't going my way.
"Another thing about him, he kept pushing me. That was a good thing that I needed. Joe [Burrow] pushed me too when I was coming in and going through that adversity. Both of those guys took me in and helped me. Looking back, I know I needed it."
Not everything was fixed, though. The pressure was on head coach Zac Taylor — who had won just six of his first 32 games — and his coaching staff, many of whom were on one-year contracts.
Two weeks into the season, the Bengals' receiving group played what Walters describes as its worst game of the season against the Chicago Bears. Chase had a third-down drop in the first quarter. Higgins fumbled near midfield in the third quarter that turned into a field goal for the Bears. A late-game, 42-yard touchdown catch from Chase made the 207 receiving yards for the entire team look more respectable. Final score: Chicago 20, Cincinnati 17.
A day after the loss during an offensive meeting, coordinator Brian Callahan put together a handful of plays to show where they went wrong. The receivers were in a lot of those clips, from the drop and the fumble to missed blocks and the like.
"We took the brunt of it," Walters says. "Afterwards I took it personal. I don't want this to ever happen again. I feel like when they call the players out, it's on me. I'm responsible to make sure they're doing their jobs. I took it personal, the players did, and I don't think we had another one of those type of moments the rest of the season.
"Tee doesn't want to fumble and [Chase] doesn't want to drop the ball. So instead of being negative, how do you turn it into a positive? Speak life to them."
Chase agrees it was the unit's worst game of the season, and he recognizes how it served as an early turning point. It was all about perspective for him.
"That right there let us know we had to be held accountable and we were a big part of the offense. That's how I looked at it," Chase says. "I don't look at it as getting in trouble because we did this or that wrong. Nah. We're a big piece to this offense. If we're getting fussed at like this, then it must really mean something. We took that in, and Troy helped us move forward. He brought us in, gave us love, and made sure we knew what we were doing and that we wouldn't have another day like that again."
The group began to get in a groove on and off the field. On Wednesday mornings during the special teams meeting, Walters takes his top three wideouts and they go over the base plan for the upcoming game. After an install meeting with the entire offense, the receivers meet for an hour to go over the opponent. They look at targeted cut-ups of the defensive backs they'll face, looking for techniques and tendencies. Then they look at the run game and how they'll have to dig out safeties and crack linebackers.
After Wednesday's practice, Walters takes the three receivers and they work on deep balls. Assistant WR coach Brad Kragthorpe throws them the deep passes as Walters works different leverages as the defensive back for a half-dozen reps. That evening, he sends them the third-down pass plan filled with notes.
Come Thursday morning, Walters gets his three guys and they go over the third-down pass plan, and later the quarterbacks coach will go over the same plan with opponent tendencies for the larger group. Thursday night Walters sends out the red-zone pass plan with notes, and Friday they're working it.
And on Saturdays when the Bengals were on the road, Chase would get dinner for the entire group. Steak, seafood, whatever they wanted, it was on the rookie who had the security of a four-year, $30.8 million contract. The bills, Chase says, never got too outrageous: as low as $800 and never above $2,000. And it will continue into this season — for a time.
"He's got three more times to do that," Higgins says. "After that third game he doesn't have to do it anymore.
"You still a rookie until you play your fourth game in the league."
The NFL today is now dominated by players in Generation Z and millennials who probably should be considered Gen-Z. In team facilities across the league, you'll find mobile phone charging stations in locker rooms and meeting rooms.
Walters is on the front end of the curve when it comes to teaching this new generation. The Kahoot tests are geared at sharpening their football IQ, yes, but it also breaks up a 45-minute meeting that feel like hours to this TikTok generation.
Sometimes, instead of the all-22 film coaches normally show in meeting rooms, Walters will splice in the TV copy of games so that the guys can listen to calls from the likes of NFL on CBS play-by-play voice Kevin Harlan.
"They have a certain attention span. Sometimes it's boring," Walters explains. "But when you've got Harlan and all those great announcers and their voices and see the game film, it does something. They're alert. You try to mix things in."
Occasionally he'll put together a cut-up reel of some of the top receivers around the league. The guys will break down what Cooper Kupp, Davante Adams, Keenan Allen, Justin Jefferson and the like are doing at the top of their routes, and they can go out and implement those moves into their own game.
Walters is a former player and so he gets it. Practice was long. You're tired. You just ate. Eyes are starting to get heavy in the meeting room. Eventually, someone's going to start dozing off.
That's why he keeps a stash of snacks — like oatmeal cream pies — nearby.
"A lot of the guys who are in the room, they know once your eyes get heavy, you stand up," Higgins says. "You're not going to fall asleep standing up. you're not a horse.
"And if somebody is dozing off, Troy will throw some candy at them like wake up now. Just things like that shows you how close we are as a family. Troy doesn't have to do that, but he does because he cares about his guys because he wants them to learn and pay attention and be a pro at the end of the day."
Sky is the limit
So what's next for a group of receivers whose 3,374 combined receiving yards last season accounted for more than 70% of all the Bengals' passing yards?
"There's more. Easy. There's more out there," Walters says. "I told them, I expect more, and they expect more. Ja'Marr had an outstanding season but there's more. He left a lot of meat out there on the table, so to speak. He knows that. My goal for them is every year get better. And that may be more yards, may be more catches, get better."
They'll get the chance to do that. The Bengals want to enhance their play-action game, and that will only help what Burrow believes is the main characteristic of the Taylor offense: "Throw it to our horses on the outside, really far down the field."
But teams aren't just going to give the yards to this group. Chase anticipates teams will be playing him and the group differently this season. Whether it's cover-2 or cover-6, Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has been giving Chase plenty of double coverage during this preseason to prepare him for the 2022 season.
"I've been getting a lot of looks at practice," Chase says. "I feel like Lou, the cornerbacks and safeties have done a great job of just giving me different looks. I actually see double teams. I have a picture of it. I don't know how it's going to play out in my world but I have a picture of it."
Chase is on his way to being a top-5 receiver in the league if he's not already. Higgins, a 2020 second-round pick, is going into the all-important third year of his rookie deal that could well see him get paid next offseason, whether it be with the Bengals or another team. And Boyd has another year left on his four-year, $43 million extension. All of those factors will be coming into play with Burrow's certain contract extension, which is poised to be the largest (by far) in Bengals history.
The realities of the NFL state this trio won't be together much longer, but that's not something they're thinking about right now.
"Yeah I've put in the thought. But at the end of the day, I know we all three want to stay together and continue to compete," Boyd says. "We know how connected us three are and not knowing what any other guy would step in and be like. We have a solid foundation here and I'm just thinking about what the now is."