The Cincinnati Bengals completed their ninth win of the season, ensuring them of their second winning season in the last 19 years, but it's been the team's drawbacks that are now forced into the limelight.
It's become an inescapable fact that the offense lacks the passing attack it enjoyed for years in its heyday. Chris Henry's absence has affected the production of Andre Caldwell; Laveranues Coles continues to look like a man searching for his identity. The Bengals' tight ends may be the least dynamic men in the NFL, and Jeremi Johnson is of little relief to Carson on scrambling check-offs.
That leaves Chad Ochocinco as the team's lone passing threat, and as a result, the Bengals now run a monotonous and predictable offense that has been just good enough to win games. Fans and pundits are concerned with the lack of points and many are convinced that it won't be enough to win in the postseason.
In Cincinnati, worry has replaced elation.
Help might be on the way.
I remember Bob Bratkowski once saying that the game-plans are reevaluated in each quarter of the season. If that remains the case, we might see a shift in the play-calling during the home stretch to the Playoffs.
A good place to start the paradigm shift would be to revitalize the play of Caldwell. I realize that with Henry out, defenses can key on him when he runs underneath routes, but it still seems important to get those intermediate yards, especially on third downs. Early on in the season, Caldwell was instrumental in those come-from-behind wins and was on his way to earning the title "clutch player". Then he faded into obscurity with the rest of the passing game as the Bengals ran and ran and ran and ran.
Caldwell, or someone, has to become a reliable secondary weapon when Carson rolls out and has to improvise. A receiving tight end would be nice; if only they could draft a guy with some speed and good hands. A guy who could line up in the slot and become the safety valve every quarterback needs. Oh wait, the Bengals did draft a player like that, but have yet to play him once this season.
Edtors Note: All the follwing remarks about Chase Coffman are now irrelevent as he was put on IR with bone spurs today, but I didn't want to change the whole article so you'll have to deal with it.
I know that Marvin Lewis and his troop are a stubborn lot, especially this season. He's found a way of winning games doing things his way, so he must know something about running and maintaining his team. But ignoring Chase Coffman's ability to catch when the team could desperately use another play-maker seems like going overboard to prove a point.
Somehow, Daniel Coates dropped another touchdown pass against Detroit. You'd think he would have accidentally caught one by now. J.P. Foschi is okay, but the Bengals passing game needs a charge of energy, a spark, a flicker, anything. While he appears to be a proficient blocker and isn't awful when he goes out for a pass, he doesn't have the spark to light a birthday candle. Coffman does. Coffman can do (to a lesser degree) what Jason Whitten does for the Cowboys' offense. In college he often lined up in the slot and went on to catch more passes in history than any other collegiate tight end. A third-round draft pick was invested in the man; why is he not playing?
I used to defend Marvin's decision of refusing to play Coffman because he couldn't block. A man of his size should be able to keep tacklers at bay to some degree---look at Little Laveranues, or even Chad, of all people, blocking well down field. Blocking is an important attribute on a run-first offense, but that still doesn't excuse refusing to utilize the man's talents; talents that would help out arguably the worst position on the team.
Chris Henry's absence isn't the only one having a negative impact on this offense. Without Bernard Scott last week, the Bengals had no success running to the outside, being dropped for a loss on seven occasions. Cedric Benson was unable to turn the corner on every attempt outside of the tackles. After coming back from a strained hip muscle, it was both surprising and a little concerning that he was given the ball 36 times, especially when he appeared a step slower than he looked before the injury. The repeated runs up the middle could have been shared by a healthy Larry Johnson, but LJ was only used twice. Wearing out the team's best runner as soon as he returns to the line-up makes little sense to me.
Lastly, the penalties are officially out of control. Against the lowliest of foes, the Bengals stacked up a staggering 27 penalties in three games. Out of all the concerns facing this team, this obnoxious, festering penalty issue is the most serious and season-threatening. Self-inflicted harm is ruinous to the most talented of teams; for a group of blue-collard schleps like the Bengals, penalties in big games could easily become their demise. The coaches are to blame for this problem only to a certain extent. Players must show the discipline and focus it takes to play within the rules. They can be taught hand-placement and pre-snap cadence all day in practice, but then they have to actually go out and do it on game-day. Nine penalties a game just won't do.
All of these concerns become more valid after each passing week. So far the defense has been the ultimate neutralizer and the team's salvation. They are a rugged bunch of no-name hombres here to go to work and earn their living. They have kept the Bengals in the thick of things all season and have been fun to watch, but will it be enough? Can they keep it up?
The next two weeks will prove once and for all what we're dealing with from these Cincinnati Bengals. By the time the team returns home to play the Chiefs in Week 16, many of our questions will be answered. These two scenarios, however, seem most likely: the Bengals are either an unimaginative, type-caste team built upon the old-school conventions of defense and the rushing game, or they're a team with many quality parts that can adjust and adapt to win games. Time will tell.
Mojokong---Still a believer nonetheless.