It's All About Catching the Ball

If three weeks ago, someone had posted an item suggesting that the Cincinnati Bengals needed to replace Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco with Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell not because the season was lost and it was time to get a look at the young guys, but because doing so would dramatically increase the team's passing efficiency and start winning them games, they would have been laughed off the blog.

Yet in the two weeks since that switch was made, that's exactly what's happened.

The Bengals have been subjected to an avalanche of criticism this season for passing too much. Blame for that has been laid at the feet of offensive coordinator Bob "the Mad Bomber" Bratkowski and his "chunks"-driven game plans, and on T.O. and Ocho for (allegedly) crying and whining for the ball. But the last couple weeks suggest an alternative explanation: the Bengals were forced to throw so much because 85 and 81 simply weren't very good.

After last week's win against the San Diego Chargers, Josh posted a comparison of targeting priorities in the passing game over the first 13 weeks, and the last two. What stood out to me was that the Bengals were still targeting about the same percentage of passes to the Nos. 1 and 2 wideouts even thought their names were no longer Owens and Ochocinco. If it were true that Carson Palmer was throwing so much to those two in order to keep their egos in check, I would have expected a much bigger drop in the percentage of throws to Simpson and Caldwell.

Just for kicks and giggles, I decided to take a look at receptions relative to targets -- and that's where the big differences started to emerge. With 67 receptions on 123 targets, Chad was catching just 54.5% of balls thrown his way. Owens, with 72 catches out of 139 throws, was even worse, grabbing just 51.7% of balls aimed in his direction. In contrast, over the last two weeks, Simpson has caught 80% of balls targeted at him, and Caldwell 72%.

This has led to a jaw-dropping increase in the team's passing efficiency, which in turn has enabled it to pass less and run more while not sacrificing any of its aerial punch. Compare the Chargers game last weekend to the game against the Indianapolis Colts in week 10: in both games, the Bengals racked up 269 yards passing. But against the Colts, that required 31 receptions and 42 total passes. Against the Chargers, they got to 269 with just 16 receptions and 21 total passes.

In other words, junking T.O and Ocho in favor of Simpson and Caldwell doubled the team's passing efficiency. That, frankly, is amazing -- so amazing, in fact, I'm still not sure that it isn't just a fluke. But the win against Cleveland the week before paints a similar, if less dramatic, picture. In that game, the Bengals had 209 yards passing on 25 throws (19 receptions). In week 5's now-infamous loss to Tampa Bay, Cincinnati also recorded 209 yards passing -- on 36 throws (21 receptions). So the Bengals managed the same number of yards and roughly the same number of receptions on about a third fewer passes.

Since incompletions beget more passes -- if you miss on 2nd and eight, you're probably going to throw again on 3rd down -- a more efficient passing game has allowed the Bengals to pound away on the ground more often, and to stick with it even when their "bell-cow" is barely getting two yards a carry, as Cedric Benson was against the Chargers. It also means far fewer opportunities for game-killing interceptions: by definition, receptions can't be intercepted and there are far fewer incompletions that can. And with the offense suddenly able to sustain drives as a result, the defense stays fresher. It all adds up to what we've seen in the past two weeks, a check mark in the "W" column.

This isn't to suggest that the Bengals have solved all their problems and should stand pat for 2011. Far from it. Two games is a small sample and even if the pattern holds up in the final contest against the Baltimore Ravens it could still be the case that Simpson and Caldwell just had a lucky three-game stretch. However, I do think it conclusively marks the TOcho experiment as a failure -- not because they're divas or douchebags or distractions, but simply because they couldn't catch the damn ball.

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