CINCINNATI — I hear this a lot, or something like it, from family and from friends in the business:
Why do you still go on that training-camp trip? Killing yourself, zipping from camp to camp. You’re 65 now. Cut it back.
This story is why:
What separates the great players from the very good players? I saw it the other day on a lonely field in the Midwest under a summer afternoon broiler, 92 degrees with 85 percent humidity, when the 2021 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year was the only football player at work.
Ja’Marr Chase was the last of 90 players on the field for the AFC champion Bengals on this dog-day Cincinnati afternoon, prepping to catch footballs shot out of a Jugs machine at short range at 40 mph. Chase started catching them with running back Chris Evans providing some distracting defense to make the catches tougher, but then Evans had to hustle inside for a meeting. So now, other than one other Bengal signing autographs 100 yards away for a few fans, and two equipment guys, the place was Bengal-free. Players and coaches were inside the air-conditioned locker room and offices.
Chase now had one problem: He needed a DB to play defense. He saw the stoop-shouldered boss of Bengals.com, Geoff Hobson, waiting for him to finish the drill so he could ask him a few questions. Hobson asked if Chase needed him to play defense.
“If you want to,” Chase said.
In his last football game, the Super Bowl, Chase was guarded by all-world corner Jalen Ramsey.
Now he’d be guarded by a gray-haired 63-year-old scribe who last played football in the Carter administration.
The object of this drill was not only for Chase to work on catching line-drive throws, but to have someone distract him with a tug on the jersey or wave a white Gatorade towel in his face. Hobson grabbed a towel and prepared to distract Chase from catching fastballs from the machine, just eight yards away.
“Wave it in front of my eyes,” Chase told Hobson.
“THWAP!” came the footballs, one after another, shot out of the machine, a Bengals aide handing them to equipment manager Adam Knollman, who fed them into the machine, each ball speeding 24 feet to the orange-gloved Chase. With Hobson fluttering the towel as each line drive zipped toward them, Chase softly hand-caught them, no body involved. Try that sometime.
The oversized rolling garbage can was empty. I called from the sideline: “How many in there?”
Equipment guy: “Well, about 40 in each.”
“I do three of ‘em,” Chase said. Most of the receivers and backs do one of these huge cans.
One hundred twenty balls. Twenty minutes of footballs shot out of a cannon. Hobson fluttering the towel in his face, no words spoken. Once, Hobson succeeded, distracting Chase so the ball clanged off his hands. (“I can tell my grandchildren I broke up a pass intended for Ja’Marr Chase,” Hobson said later.) Chase stopped the drill, ambled 25 yards downfield, picked it up and tossed it back to the assistant helping Knollman feed the machine with ball after ball.
Seemed an odd thing, Chase chasing the errant ball. Let that one go, I thought. Someone will pick it up later.
“Ja’Marr’s different,” Knollman, the equipment guy, said. “If he misses one, he’ll go get it, and the ball gets thrown back to us. He’ll have to do it again. He has to be perfect. He has to catch every one.”
When it was over, Chase took his helmet off. The sweat flowed in rivulets off his head. “Thank you,” he said to the equipment guys. A walk-through hour to get today’s script of plays down, two hours of practice, a five-minute “Get Better” period of catching tennis balls thrown fast, then 20 minutes of this.
We’d talked before practice. I asked him what he’d say to a kid watching this interview.
“Focus on you,” Chase said. “There’s so much you can control. If you want to be great, you’ve got to work at it constantly, every day, even when you’re tired. Gotta know when to push yourself, gotta know when to over-push yourself.”
This was over-pushing himself. It’s his world.
I said to him pre-practice: “You want to be the best, don’t you?”
“That’s my goal,” Chase said.
“What about you against [former LSU mate] Justin Jefferson?”
“I’m better than Justin.”
“I don’t know if I’m better … but I watch his film all the time. He told me he watches my film. That’s definitely something to keep me working.”
One day last week, Chase’s receivers coach, Troy Walters, used Powerpoint before practice to put up a quote from Bo Schembechler in the wide receivers meeting room.
EVERY DAY YOU’RE EITHER GETTING BETTER OR YOU’RE GETTING WORSE. YOU NEVER STAY THE SAME.
The same day, at practice, Walters, who has been significant in Chase’s growth and ethos, told him: “If you want to be really great, you need to be fundamentally sound every day, even in our walk-through.” Walters noticed on one route that Chase was supposed to take four steps off the line, but instead he took five. He admonished Chase. For the rest of the walk-through, Chase would look back at Walters after practicing a route, to see if he’d done it perfectly.
Chase credits Walters with pushing him and polishing him. After Chase had one of the best rookie seasons by a player in recent history—81 catches, 1,455 yards, 18.0 yards per catch, 13 TDs, then a rookie-record 368 postseason receiving yards—what happened a year ago in his rookie training camp seems so incongruous. Remember when he was dropping everything in sight last summer? Walters sat Chase down, showed him tape of how great he was at LSU and said, essentially, this too shall pass, and hard work will fix everything.
“We had a heart to heart,” Walters said. “He’s a great player. The word that comes to mind is freakish. But he understands the value of work, and how important it is in his success. I think what happened is he hadn’t played in the  Covid season, and he just had some rust.”
There’s a drill Walters does with Chase that makes a lot of sense. Chase faces a wall. Walters stands behind him. With Chase focused on the wall, Walters throws a tennis ball hard. It bounces off the wall to a different place in Chase’s catch radius each time, and Chase tries to react instantaneously and grab it.
“Hand-eye coordination,” Chase told me. “Reaction in a split-second is crucial to being great.”
I didn’t sense a lot of the-missed-Super Bowl-chance haunts us out of the Bengals. My theory: This team won fortunate dogfights at Tennessee and Kansas City when Ryan Tannehill and Patrick Mahomes threw late picks, and Evan McPherson kicked 95-yard field goals in both games to get Cincinnati to the big game. I didn’t sense that losing to that great defensive front and Matthew Stafford/Cooper Kupp is a nightmare for Cincinnati going forward. For the Bengals to get to a second straight Super Bowl, the retooled offensive line needs to build a better shield around Joe Burrow (72 sacks in 21 games, by far the most in football). Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd combined for 222 catches, 3,374 yards and 24 TDs last year. It’s absurd to just say, Duplicate that, or do better, but the Bengals need a healthy, full dose of their trio to be great again. Because now the rest of the league looks at the Bengals on the schedule as a challenge, not a bye week.
There’s another reason the uber-popular Chase is particularly valuable to the franchise in a time when the Bengals have taken over the local sports scene: perspective beyond his 22 years. The other day, Knollman said to Chase he appreciated him signing autographs for so many kids after practice.
“These people wait a long time for this,” Chase said. “And it doesn’t last forever.”