Last year, the Bengals went 6-2 through the first half of the season but then they went 4-4 in the second half and then lost to the Jets in their home playoff game. Doug Farrar of Yahoo Sports sees a correlation between the Bengals second-half decline and Carson Palmers struggles in the latter half of the season.
Palmer’s second-half slide mirrored that of his team. In the first eight games, he completed 160 passes in 260 attempts for 1,832 yards, 14 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. In the second eight-game stretch, he went 122 of 206 for 1,262 yards, seven scores and six picks.
Luckily, the Bengals had some things to counteract their struggling passing game: the fourth best defense in the NFL, a great locker room and Cedric Benson. Those three things enabled the Bengals to make it to the playoffs for the first time since 2005 and turn a 4-11-1 2008 record into a 10-6 2009 record. While this combination worked to get the Bengals into the playoffs in 2009, I think we all know that the passing game will need to be better in order to go back to the playoffs in 2010. Enter Jermaine Gresham.
Actually, before I get ahead of myself, let me say this. I think the passing game will be better this year no matter what. The subtraction of Laveranues Coles and the addition of Antonio Bryant, the return of Reggie Kelly and the fact that Palmer will be able to utilize the play action now that his thumb is healed are all reasons the passing game will improve from last year. Now back to Gresham.
Palmer has not had a true pass catching tight end since his arrival in Cincinnati. I like Kelly just as much as the next guy, and we know that Palmer loves him, but Kelly is a blocking tight end. He lacks the speed to stretch the field. I mean, he's better than J.P. Foschi and Daniel Coats who both catch like they had their hands removed and replaced them with ping pong paddles but he's no Dallas Clark/Antonio Gates/Tony Gonzalez. Gresham is, or at least he could be.
When quarterback Sam Bradford was putting up video game numbers and Gresham was creating matchup nightmares all over the field. Bradford operated primarily out of the shotgun, and he targeted Gresham on all manner of short routes. Gresham would run the standard patterns you’d see from any tight end in a spread offense – little flares, slants, and curls – but he was most dangerous when lined up in a slot or flex position. There, he used his speed to get 10-15 yards downfield for catches and extra yards after, using his 6-foot-5, 261-pound frame and his 4.6 speed.
Gresham is a bottomless well of raw talent. He has NFL superstar size and speed and with a little help from veteran players and coaches, he can be the next Kellen Winslow (the old one that played for the Chargers not the young one who used to play for the Browns). From what he's seen so far, Palmer seems impressed.
"I don’t know if there is anything that any tight end in this league does that he can’t potentially do," Palmer told the team’s official website last week. "Not that he’s mastered anything yet. Not that he’s got everything down. But I don’t see a weakness. If he had to play in Pittsburgh’s offense and block a guy every single time and run little quick seam routes, out routes, he could do that. If he played in Denver’s offense and got to run a lot of routes, he could do that. The sky’s the limit for him."
If you're not convinced about Greshams ability to be Palmers main man in the redzone (or anywhere else on the field), watch his 2008 highlight reel. Ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. The guy has the size to break a linebackers tackle and then he's got the speed to beat a safety to the corner of the end zone. And in the red zone.... forget about it. He has the potential to be a nightmare for any defense inside the 20 yard-line.
Palmer has Benson in the backfield. He's got Chad Ochocinco. He's got Bryant. He's going to have somebody to stretch the field, whether it be Jerome Simpson or Matt Jones. He's going to have a good slot receiver in Andre Caldwell or Jordan Shipley. The only thing missing was a tight end who can do what Gresham has the ability to do. When Palmer says the sky's the limit for Gresham, I hear the sky's the limit for the Bengals passing offense. Add that to a top five defense and running game fueled by Benson and Bernard Scott and I hear the sky's the limit for the Bengals team. Here's to hoping I'm right (don't worry, I usually am).
So, the answer is yes. Jermaine Gresham will make Carson Palmer better. He'll make the offense and the team better in the process.