CINCINNATI -- Joe Mixon's foot injury in 2020 was one of many unfortunate events in another train wreck of a season for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Cincinnati had shown promise early that year, but suddenly its premier running back, coming off two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, was done after six games. Injuries also took down rookie quarterback Joe Burrow and a long list of others. The Bengals clunked to a 4-11-1 finish amid the chaos and confusion of the pandemic.
Mixon persevered. On a surgically repaired foot, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound power runner came back better than ever.
The best season of his five-year career earned Mixon election to the Pro Bowl and helped the Bengals go from worst to first in the AFC North — and ultimately to their first Super Bowl in 33 years.
The 25-year-old Californian never takes success — or good health — for granted.
“I always tell our players when I talk to them, you’ve got to play each play like it’s your last because you’re not guaranteed the next one,” Mixon said Monday. "And we finally know what that means. And I finally know what that means, and know what that feels like.
“We’ve all been through adversity and everybody’s learning to get through tough times," he said. “And for us to be able to be here in this position, it’s a blessing.”
Mixon knows about adversity. He created a great deal of it for himself as a younger man.
Many NFL teams didn't want to touch him because of behavioral problems and suspensions at Oklahoma, most notably a horrific video of him punching a woman during a scuffle in a restaurant before his freshman year in 2014.
Mixon apologized, took responsibility and accepted a plea agreement requiring probation, 100 hours of community service and behavioral counseling. A civil lawsuit was settled out of court.
The Bengals thoroughly vetted him and were convinced he deserved a chance, drafting him in the second round in 2017.
Despite terrible offensive lines and various leg injuries, Mixon rushed for nearly 3,000 total yards in his first three NFL seasons. In his first four seasons in the league, the Bengals were a combined 19-44-1.
Mixon had primarily been a two-down back. This season the Bengals used him as a three-down back. More chances to get the ball in his hands, and more responsibility.
With media attention focused on the exploits of Burrow and rookie receiver Ja'Marr Chase, Mixon went about his business. In addition to 1,205 rushing yards — third best in the NFL — and 13 touchdowns in 2021, he caught 42 passes for a career-high 314 yards and three more TDs.
Despite missing two regular-season games, Mixon got a career-high 334 touches. In the Bengals’ 27-24 AFC championship game win over the Kansas City Chiefs, he rushed for 88 yards on 21 carries and caught all three of his targets for another 27 yards. Mixon was particularly effective late in the game and in overtime.
After winning three nail-biters in the playoffs, the Bengals face the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl on Sunday at SoFi Stadium.
“It’s not just the carries. It’s just we got to find ways to get him the ball,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “You know, there’s a lot of ways we can manufacture runs sometimes with the check downs, just calling some things where we understand the coverage may take the ball to him, then he maximizes it with some 8-to-10-yard catches that way. So the effect that he has on the defense over the course of the game, whether it’s the run or pass, is significant.”
The Rams have taken notice.
“I think Mixon is one of the more complete players in this league,” Rams coach Sean McVay said.
Mixon has said throughout the season he feels himself entering his prime. And now he's savoring every moment of his Super Bowl journey.
“I guess in times like this, it just tells you that no matter what you’re going through, man, you’ve got to be thankful for the opportunity given to you,” he said. “I came in basically in the rebuilding years of something that would be special here. And this is just the start of it.”
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