CINCINNATI (AP) — Joe Mixon's imagination is soaring right along with his confidence.
The Cincinnati Bengals' top running back has rebounded from a foot injury that sidelined him for the final 10 games of the 2020 season. He looks healthy and strong early in training camp.
And Mixon is so enthusiastic about the team's potential that he's floating a nickname for himself and the other featured offensive players, including quarterback Joe Burrow and receivers Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase.
He sees them as touchdown-scoring wonders known far and wide as the Fabulous Five.
“I was thinking about the Fantastic Four, with me, Ja’Marr, Tee and (Boyd),” the 25-year-old Mixon said. “But I can’t forget about my dog Joey B, so I had to throw the Fabulous Five in there.”
Don't start printing up the T-shirts just yet. Burrow is still struggling to get his bearings after major knee surgery last December. Chase, the fifth overall pick in this year's draft, has yet to play a down in the NFL. And Cincinnati's offensive line, which will have a big say in how fabulous the five get to be, is still a work in progress.
But there is the potential for explosiveness, and Mixon sees himself being the tip of the spear again.
“That’s five people that are real big-play guys, home-run guys," he said. “Everybody got to touch the ball but at the same time, I know I’m going to put the load on my back and take the initiative of carrying the team. It’s always going to start up front and with me and how physical that I’m coming and playing the game. I’m going to set the tone.”
A second-round draft pick in 2017, Mixon piled up more than 1,100 yards rushing in both 2018 and 2019 even as the Bengals and their offensive line flailed. Last season he had one notable game — 151 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-25 win over Jacksonville on Oct. 4 — before going down with the right foot injury two weeks later in Indianapolis.
He tried to make it back, but with the Bengals securely stowed in the AFC North basement, coaches told him to shut it down and focus on getting ready for 2021.
“Last year was definitely tough,” Mixon said. “It sucked because I couldn’t be there for my team. They needed me, I needed them. I was definitely in a bad state.”
Mixon, a two-down back through his four-year career with the Bengals, is also about to get more responsibility.
Cincinnati released reliable third-down back Giovani Bernard, so coaches will expect Mixon to be in the game on third down to catch passes or provide protection for Burrow, who was beaten up and finally injured seriously by pass rushers the Bengals couldn't seem to stop last season.
“Joe (Mixon) has a really unique ability because he’s so big and fast and strong,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said.
“He also catches the ball well, so there’s a place for him in the pass game," Callahan said. "The third part of playing running back besides running and catching is protection. They’re a huge part of protection on third down. Joe has grown and improved in that area, really through his career. It’ll be asked of him a bunch this year to be able to do that.”
Mixon couldn't be happier with the return of Frank Pollack as the offensive line coach/run-game coordinator. Pollack was the O-line coach in 2018 when Mixon led the AFC in rushing with 1,168 yards. He likes the greater variety of run plays that Pollack has brought to camp.
Mixon said he wants to be a leader and is ready to do what the Bengals ask of him. He also wants to do his part to make sure the Fabulous Five tag catches on.
“I feel great, man, and I’m just ready to roll," he said.
Mixon is expected to see limited playing time in Cincinnati's exhibition opener Saturday at Tampa Bay. Burrow is expected to be held out.
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL
Follow Mitch Stacy at http://twitter.com/mitchstacy