The writers at Cincy Jungle are working overtime right now putting together the most comprehensive analysis previewing this year's training camp. Our work will be sporadic early and leading up to Bengals Training Camp Preview Week; the week that Training Camp kicks off. Keep coming back.
One of the final words I wrote when the team's playoff run ended last season:
I'm not sure if the problem with the team's passing game this year is the quarterback, or the talent around him. Either way, this team needs to focus on getting the passing game off the ground again.
The season had just ended, leaving a sour taste in our mouths as if realizing too late that the milk in the refrigerator probably should have been thrown out... like three weeks ago. Even though a large part of the blame was levied on Shayne Graham like a falling piano in a hilariously overused Looney Tunes skit, the Bengals passing game did struggle. After winning seven of their first nine games of the season, Carson Palmer recorded just one 300-yard passing performance with three 200-yard games in a seven-game stretch where the Bengals finished the season with a momentum killing 3-4 record with Palmer's touchdown-interception ratio being a meager seven-six. Against the Vikings, Palmer recorded 94 yards passing and in the regular season finale, Palmer recorded as many completions (1) as he did interceptions (1) against the New York Jets during a frozen and windy January night. When the playoffs came around, when the Bengals needed the art of a finesse passing offense with a 14-point deficit heading into the fourth quarter, abandonment issues arose like the Kraken; very noticeable and very unwelcome. Completing only 18 of 36 passes, Palmer averaged 4.06 yards per passing attempt with an un-elite-like 58.3 passer rating.
Some questioned if Palmer's arm wasn't hurt. Maybe his elbow wasn't fully healed. Save for 2008 when he missed 12 games, Palmer's efficiency (60.5%) turned into personal low. Recording an 83.6 passer rating, his lowest since his rookie year, Palmer's touchdown percentage was a respectable, though very middle-of-the-road, 4.5% and his interception percentage (2.8%) was lower than his Pro Bowl seasons in 2005 and 2006.
Through the glorious Football Outsiders' statistical analysis, Palmer never breached the top-ten in DYAR, DVOA or even VOA. Pro Football Focus ranked him 13th. Outside influences, such as pass protection and receiver (lack of) help pushed aside for a moment, Palmer's numbers for the season weren't dreadful; nor were they respectable enough to be discussed amongst the best in the league.
Through all of that, it's fairly obvious that you'll draw the same conclusions as did I. Carson Palmer is only but a portion of the team's need to rebuild the passing offense. There's more to it. Let's examine the parts of the whole.
First and foremost is the obvious. After recording 1,520 net yards rushing in 2008, which translated into a 3.6 yards-per-rush average -- lowest average since the 3.6 yards/rush average in 1993 -- the focus for rushing competency took form. After shuffling the offensive line and revising the playbook to overpower teams rather than tricking them (we never really trick anyone), the Bengals topped 2,000 yards rushing for the first time since 2000, calling 505 rushing plays of 1,011 total offensive snaps. If Bob Bratkowski was anything last year, he was masterful calling a balanced offense. Having a run-oriented offensive philosophy tricks defenses, provided you have the passing offense that takes advantage of an eager front seven with a safety cheating inside the box.
Unfortunately, this caused more problems than one would expect. Having lost Chris Henry last year to a broken left forearm against the Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals lost their speed and thus lacked the ability to spread the field. See, if you have eight in the box anticipating a run and can only throw the football 15-20 yards down field, you're throwing into the entire defense with no outlet over the top. This posed serious issues that was further exacerbated with receivers being unable to break free from their coverages and Palmer having lost a bit of his touch on deep throws. And when they did break free, those that Palmer targeted were anything but dependable.
Daniel Coats had the largest dropped passes rate, dropping 22.6% of all the passes he was targeted for and Laveranues Coles only caught 56.6% of the passes thrown his way; which presents the following argument -- did Coles just not catch the passes, or was Palmer's accuracy off. And while Andre Caldwell had the highest percentage of passes caught, his 8.9 yards/reception ranked 104th in the NFL. Cincinnati's 11.0 yards-per-reception average ranked 22nd in the league and no team produced more fumbles (7) after receptions than the Bengals.
Some would argue that the pass blocking wasn't that great. Some would argue otherwise. Cincinnati's adjusted sack rate (5.6%) ranked 10th in the NFL and Pro Football Focus ranked the Bengals pass blocking as the league's sixth best. Individually, Pro Football Focus ranked Andrew Whitworth as the league's seventh best pass blocking tackle in the NFL. Including Whitworth, Anthony Collins, Andre Smith and Dennis Roland, no Bengals tackle scored a negative pass blocking score by Pro Football Focus; you might as well include Bobbie Williams, Evan Mathis and Nate Livings, neither of whom recorded a negative pass blocking score. Kyle Cook recorded the worst pass blocking score (-0.5) being the only player to score in the red. Furthermore Palmer was only hit three times in the middle of a throw -- one of the lowest in the league -- and the eight passes that were batted at the line of scrimmage ranked 16th most.
While the offensive line is somewhat vindicated (by way of two websites), the team's skill players never were. Slow, unable to break free, Laveranues Coles was a shadow of his prime and did very little for the team's passing game, recording a career low (excluding his rookie season) 43 receptions and 514 yards receiving. Coles was released on March 4. Andre Caldwell's disappearing act has been extensively mentioned on this website. Fortunately, reports surfaced since the end of the season of Caldwell's extensive workout to become a better player. Less than a week after Coles' release, the Bengals signed Antonio Bryant to a contract that was nearly identical to the one Coles signed in 2009.
Antonio Bryant's Career Stats (per Pro-Football-Reference)
In furthering their quest to rebuild skill players, the Bengals added to their infusion of talent at wide receiver by drafting Jordan Shipley and Dezmon Briscoe during this year's NFL Draft.
Jordan Shipley College Stats (per ESPN)
Dezmon Briscoe College Stats (per ESPN)
But that wasn't enough. Rebuilding your wide receivers is one thing, with the hopeful intentions of proving that the 2009 roster was just lacking talent and speed and not some injury to the God of Golden Arms. However adding a weapon to a position that's hardly used as a passing threat is another. Years with Reggie Kelly made us believe one thing. The Tight End is only the sixth blocker on the offensive line during passes. Not that Kelly wasn't the best at doing it; it's just that at times we needed a bit more.
With the prospects of having Chad Ochocinco, Antonio Bryant, Jordan Shipley, Dezmon Briscoe, along with Andre Caldwell and possibly Jerome Simpson, who is practicing well enough this year to remain firm in people's minds, the team decided to make the Tight End a relevant position in the passing game that doesn't begin with the letter "blocking". Drafting Jermaine Gresham adds that element. And of all the wild cards sitting on the table, one has to appreciate the threat that Cincinnati could have with Gresham and Chase Coffman in double tight end formations. Whoa.
Jermaine Gresham's Collect Stats (via ESPN)
Cincinnati's prospects taking a 26th ranked passing offense in 2009 into a much improved era with a cast of veteran starting receivers and young slot receivers with the dynamics of speed and athleticism, along with a new position to threaten passing defenses, is enormous.
The Bengals went into the offseason needing to rebuild their passing offense. Heading into Training Camp, that plan is taking form and the Bengals beautifully put their pieces in position on the chess board.