As of now, the vast majority of the NFL is on vacation. It's practically a year-round season these days and what good is making boatloads of money if one can't pop off to someplace quiet and tropical for a few weeks?
Yet when they return, they face arguably the most crucial month of them all: training camp. Obviously the stretch of 16 games on a team's schedule is of paramount importance, but it's at training camp that schemes are hatched and player roles are defined. Some adjustments are made on the fly once the season-opening kickoff gets underway, but for the most part, all the schematics, all the hammering home of fundamentals, the general approach to the game, is sorted out during this time.
I listened to the venerable Rod Woodson speak about how divisions are won differently each year, and the logic of such a philosophy rang out to me. The Bengals ran roughshod over the AFC North last year with a bruising method of power running and containment defense. They had a different feel than we Bengal fans had grown accustomed, and I believe the shift in style surprised teams enough—especially early on—to land Cincinnati in the playoffs.
The problem with such a rudimentary approach, of course, is that it's easily learned by the opposition. As much as we all may like to think that our team is physically superior that needs no disguise in its attack, NFL players are separated by the smallest of measurements—almost mass produced, like robots—and the Bengals are just another legion within those ranks. Once the league did master the Cincinnati game plan, the adjustments were minimal, and the results, poor. It wasn't the element of strength that aided them in their playoff run, it was the element of surprise, and it's up to the coaching staff to unearth that element again, but this time in a different way.
Before we allow our inventive right-brain to begin concocting wild offensive formations and play-calling that is laden with flea-flickers and statue-of-liberty plays, let's scale ourselves back with the forced levity that the mere mention of Bob Bratkowski's name invokes.
Brat, as we know, is a man of the script. He has ideas of how the offense should operate, he writes his ideas down on paper, he gets into his little booth on Sundays, he reads his ideas into a microphone in the booth which transmits them into Carson Palmer's helmet, and the ideas come to life. When we as fans watch this last stage unfold we think, "Ah, I know these ideas," and you can bet the opposition does too. Yet it doesn't matter to Bratkowski. He gets paid to write a script, and going off script is to admit the failure of his ideas, and that's not in his interest, even if it's in the team's.
In some fairness, we don't really know the pressures that Brat faces as an offensive coordinator. Perhaps Marvin limits the scope of Brat's play-calling, perhaps Mike Brown threatens him regularly to keep him on his toes, or, perhaps some players are just difficult to coach sometimes. The reality, though, is none of that should matter—it's productivity or else—yet he has grown so comfortable in his office chair despite his up and down tenure in Cincinnati, the seat has conformed to his ass.
Therefore, since he is here and is still carrying around the same script from last year, the most we can hope for are additional scribblings on those wrinkled and coffee-stained notes.
If he runs the same offense as last year with no change to adapt to the new personnel, I will lose my mind. I like the power-run game, and there is no reason not to pound teams with it, but the model used last year was a yellow, plastic kids toy version of a running offense. It needed to be elaborated and expanded during the second half of last season, but remained in its playschool form to the bitter end. What I'm not doing is calling for a spread out, high-flying vertical-pass offense. Instead, I want a beefed up playbook that stays true to the Bengals' strengths but has major variations of styles within it; like a chicken cookbook.
To play an effective power-run offense, a team needs some unique characters.
We know they have a complimentary backfield that can be used in a wide range of ways, and an offensive line that looks comfortable mauling and road-grading and all the other big-guy adjectives that spring to mind when considering offensive linemen and their ability to run block. We also widely agree that Carson Palmer is not a source of major concern and, with good health, should do just fine.
The exciting bit, then, is the blue-chip tight end, Jermaine Gresham. Here is a mismatch to nearly any defense when thrown to, and with Kelly's tutelage on the finer points of blocking, it is hopeful that he will ease any concerns shared on that front as well. Other teams, including both Super Bowl teams, have demonstrated how back-breaking a dangerous tight end can be, and the Bengals haven't employed such an athlete as Gresham within the Marvin Lewis era.
Brat must use this thoroughbred not only on shorter crossing patterns and even screens, but especially on deeper routes down field. I expect Gresham to become a key safety valve when Palmer is flushed from the pocket, and he also has all the makings for a terrific red-zone target. He is large, can jump, has quality hands and can separate from defenders. Although he is unproven, and there is plenty of talent elsewhere amongst the ranks of receivers on this team, I think Gresham has the potential to become the focus of the offense this year. If his vast upside materializes, the other receivers will find their jobs easier and the whole offense is happier. One can only hope.
Another nice compliment to a good tight end within the run offense, is the big possession receiver. Let's bring in Antonio Bryant. Mr. Bryant has a muscular frame, has caught a lot of passes, and plays with a temper—which can be good (see: Houshmandzedah, T.J.). Without seeing much of him these past few years, I can't speak much of his hands, but I do know that he is a difficult receiver to tackle and a possession-offense loves them some Yards After Catch.
After the Laveranues Coles experiment blew up their face, the Bengals looked at the other end of the receiver spectrum and picked out a guy with lead-pipe arms and a snarl; the extra size and the attitude should help on crossing routes and keep him from fumbling—a big problem for Bengal receivers last season. If Bryant finds himself covered by a particularly smallish corner, Brat would be wise to take a shot on a deep throw to him in hopes of Antonio overpowering the defender. He can also be effectively used on receiver bubble screens, and should be a decent blocker on the outside too.
The new faces create new opportunities for Brat. The beleaguered offensive coordinator has been well insulated with excuses over the years—not having enough firepower was last season's—but he has all the materials at his disposal this time around. During this year’s training camp, the hope is that the offense, including Bratkowski himself, is ready to take on more information to push the playbook further. There is no need to remove the shovel pass to Brian Leonard, or all the magical footwork of Chad Ochocinco along the sidelines or inside the end-zones, or the screen-pass to Bernard Scott, or the off-tackle power run with Benson, but we need to see more than that this season.
No matter how a team surprises the league, the league will always eventually figure it out and stop whatever surprised them the first time. The same old recipe as last year simply won't do. Coaches are too smart to remain stagnant. One must constantly evolve or become another forgotten casualty of natural selection. What mutation the Bengals will experience this training camp weighs heavily on the minds of the team's followers. As always, stay tuned.
Mojokong—again with those damned finches! Who cares about finches?