I know we've been over the merits of signing Antonio Bryant and drafting TE Jermaine Gresham and WR Jordan Shipley here at Cincy Jungle in stories, FanPosts, and comments ad nauseum. But at the root of the passing game is Carson Golden Arm Palmer. A look at some of Palmer's splits indicates that opposing defenses last year had an easy time game-planning for the Bengals offense, Bob Bratkowski aside, simply due to talent at skill positions.
In his best year (2005), Palmer was a 71.3% percent passer between the numbers. Last year, he sported a roughly 68.5% completion rate. In 2005, he averaged 7.8 yards per attempt; in 2009, 7.63 per attempt. Not a major difference, but his '09 rate was buoyed by several big plays down the middle of the field. The difference between his efficiency in 2005 and 2009 came down the sidelines, probably because that's where opposing coordinators focused a vast majority of their secondary defense. In '05, Palmer spread his interceptions fairly evenly around the field and most of his picks came on deeper routes, compared with 30% of his interceptions in 2009 resulting from short throws. Carson threw 76 less passes to the sidelines this year, and when he forced the ball to Chad Ochocinco on the right sideline, 7% of his passes were intercepted. Compare that to the rest of the field, where only 1% of his passes were picked, and you've got a pretty significant pattern.
Opposing secondaries gave up the middle of the field consistently last year, when Palmer was inefficient just about every where else, because there was only one dangerous receiving threat on the football field - Chad Ochocinco. Interestingly, Cedric Benson found most of his success to the outside, but was strikingly stuffed more frequently to the right side. Part of this has to do with offensive linemen (the RT situation last year was less than ideal), but it may also indicate a propensity for opposing defenses to have safety help cheating toward Ocho's side of the field, putting them in better position to disrupt the backfield. Additionally, opposing defenses seemed more likely to devote their front 7 to stopping Benson than dropping back in pass coverage due to a general dearth of TE or slot capability. It's hard to tell from the numbers whether or not the Bengals' offense adjusted to these tendencies late in the year, but the offense definitely faded down the stretch - can we blame Bratkowski for that?
Defenses facing the Bengals could quickly identify Laveranues Coles' ineffectiveness and seemed to gameplan that way. It was also pretty clear that Dan Coats (the worst, in fact, according to Football Outsiders) was a terrible receiver, and JP Foschi (who plays essentially at replacement-level production) were not contributing to the offense. Andre Caldwell had a promising first half, but after opposing teams ostensibly devoted better resources to covering him or identified a weakness, he was fairly unproductive down the stretch.
So, why will this year be different? For one thing, we can expect the offensive line to protect Palmer a bit better. They've been together for a year, Andre Smith, Nate Livings and Kyle Cook will show improvement, and Bobbie Williams and Andrew Whitworth will be the solid veterans we expect them to be. The hope is that Cook will become more efficient at identifying pass rushers and Andre Smith will be more effective on the right edge than Collins and Roland were last year.
The second important factor is the injection of new personnel. Jordan Shipley flashes immense talent over the middle of the field, drawing comparisons to Wes Welker as a route technician and skilled catcher of the football. Gresham should be leaps and bounds better than the combined efforts of Coats and Foschi last year, and there's a strong possibility that Chase Coffman will contribute to the offense after taking a year to redshirt, learn the offense, and learn how to play in-line. The other guy, Antonio Bryant, has simply been more effective than Coles for his entire career. He's an excellent downfield threat, and in his last full season caught 42% of his passes more than 10 yards down the field. He also shows exceptional ability to get open along the sidelines, something the Bengals sorely lacked last year.
Taken together, what you have is a classic example of an offense that will be greater than the sum of its parts. Last year, it was limited severely by a lack of personnel to execute any offensive game plan, regardless of how well or poorly Bratkowski may have drawn it up. Jermaine Gresham alone will command safety attention in the middle of the field. Antonio Bryant should alleviate some pressure from Chad Ochocinco. When you consider the possibility of Shipley (or a competition-inspired Caldwell) contributing from the slot and Coffman's potential production, things seem much more promising.
Ultimately, this year's offense rides on Carson Palmer's shoulders. He should have better protection. He has at least 2 new weapons, and perhaps 2 improved options as well. We'll learn this year whether Palmer's inaccuracy last year was a product of the team around him, or if his skills physically and mentally have deteriorated. Hopefully we'll see a quarterback this year that has time to go through his progression and doesn't have to fling the ball with a prayer toward Chad on the right side of the field. Another second or so (maybe even half a second) of time to find guys that should be more open and more reliable than last year's targets should go a long way in opening up the passing game.