Running Backs: Cedric Benson & Co.
No one is more confused on the Bengals than Cedric Benson. His two legs were the heart and soul of the offense in 2009. That pair literally carried Cincinnati into the playoffs and for a stretch of that season, he was the NFL's leading rusher. His 96.2 yards-per-game were second only to Chris Johnson (125.4!), and he fumbled only once in 301 chances. He was a certified beast of a running back that looked both powerful and fast, focused and relentless, and came into 2010 as a top-five back.
Everyone expected he would get the same amount of carries this season and again be the team's reliable workhorse—their Boxer—and to a large degree he was, but, perplexing as it may be, he actually averaged nearly 30 yards less per game despite getting more carries than '09. This occurring with nearly the exact same personnel as the year before—coaches and all. Why this happened, could be one of few possibilities.
First off, the play-calling affected Benson's low totals. The stretch hand-off formations became so recognizable, you could see them from space. On far too many occasions—especially in short-yardage situations—the defense appeared to be tipped off on not only what the ensuing run play would be, but even in which direction the run would go. It became frustrating to watch; I can't imagine how it felt for the men asked to perform such predictable tasks. If you're a lineman—or worse yet, a receiver—how do you block as hard as you can when you know that the play called will fail?
Benson is not entirely vindicated by Bob Bratkowski's ineptitude, however. Play-calling aside, the man fumbled seven times—that is an alarming total for any running back. Let us not forget the quick demise of one Chris Perry who was terminated largely because of his fumbling problems in 2008. Benson also appeared overly bouncy on a lot of plays. When the team needed two or three tough yards on third or fourth down, too often CedBen planted his feet and attempted to cut to the outside for bigger yardage. I was disappointed in his ability to smash that square head of his forward for the minimal yardage needed. It began to feel like maybe Benson wanted too much on his carries. Instead of making every yard count and running straight ahead until tackled, he overused his cutback technique and his numbers suffered.
Then there is the offensive line. For some reason, this group didn't maul defenders quite like they did a year before. This could be because of the play-calling as well—not allowing the big boys to get into a run-blocking rhythm based on too many passes called—but on a lot of occasions, the Bengals line was simply out-muscled. If Benson has less faith in his blockers, it makes sense that he would attempt to do too much on his own. If anything, with the return of Reggie Kelly and the addition of Terrell Owens, the blocking should have improved, if only marginally, and that didn't seem to be the case. To the blocking-unit's credit, though, I think not having a true fullback on the roster really hurt the rushing effort as a whole, and I also think we saw some normalcy return once Chris Pressley appeared in games. It might not be a stretch to suppose that had Fui Vakapuna remained healthy, we may have seen a better Cedric Benson in 2010, but that still seems like a flimsy excuse.
Benson is a free agent, of course, and should really get a concrete handle on how much the rest of the world values him this winter. The Bengals will remain the front-runner in signing him until he finds a new team, which I am not convinced will happen. I expect Cincinnati to retain their back at a price they can stomach, and everyone involved will hope Ced can step his game up next year.
If it were up to me, though, I would let him walk. Running back is the most replaceable position on the field, and a new one should be brought in every three years. The mileage stacks up in a hurry with these guys, and there are always decent backs to be had. Last year, Larry Johnson was thrown out there after only a couple of weeks with the team and racked up a 100-yard game. Had Benson not fumbled so much, I would still see him as a reliable back that adds value in ball-security alone, but as it is, he showed me no reason why he is indispensable, so therefore, he would hit the streets in my organization.
Bernard Scott, however, is my guy. Even though he is still tragically underused, when he does get the ball, he is explosive. He could be Jamaal Charles in this offense and put up impressive numbers but he got less touches in 2010 than the year before, even though he averaged a shade under five yards a carry. He's good fruit gone rotten as he sat on the sideline and played five snaps and a few kick returns each game. He should announce now that he too wants to be traded and will hold out for a new contract if the team refutes his trade demands. Why not? This coaching staff refuses to give him his due and it's maddening to me; I would think he feels the same way.
Most coordinators can find creative ways to get fast, jukey backs the ball in space which allows them to bust loose. The Bengals use him for runs up the gut where his talents are wasted. His best play this season came in Pittsburgh late in the year when he took an end-around for a six-yard gain and a key first down on the Bengals second drive. He showed his speed getting to the corner and showed toughness taking a big hit, but, in typical fashion of the season, the Bengals were called for illegal formation and the drive fizzled out with a punt.
If used effectively, Scott could become a mini-star (a red dwarf?) and a crucial component to a mean two-headed rushing attack, but that isn't happening. He's being squandered. If Benson is brought back, I feel Scott will be permanently relegated to the backup position, if not, I hope he gets a chance to prove that I 'm right about him.
Leonard had a hard time living up to the hype his play created a season before. All of those spectacular clutch efforts he put forth resulted in the assumption that he could replicate those performances in 2010, but he was unable to match the perhaps unrealistic expectation of always being the hero. I felt there were too many times that the Bengals dumped it to Leonard on third down and just hoped for the best. I did like his ridiculous fake-punt scamper in Indianapolis, but other than that, his season was middle of the road. He remains a player worth keeping because he does have a special ability to get yards in strange ways, but, like Scott, he should have been used more often and in ways that maximize his talents.
Peerman was super limited only touching the ball three times all season, but he's a fast little guy that caught a nice pass for a first down late in the season finale against Baltimore. I would bring him back because he adds nice depth to the position should Benson sign elsewhere or simply get injured playing in Cincinnati.
If the Bengals went with the shorter passing game that calls for running backs to make 30 catches in a season, then there's no room for Benson. Scott, Leonard and Peerman could be a terrific trio in such a philosophy, each with their own unique ability to contribute to the passing game. However, If they stick with the stretch hand-off, zone-blocking scheme, then Benson is required because it would be the same offense and none of the others can do Benson's job in the current system quite like he can.
So there you have it. The Bengals could have been a better, more creative offense when using their running backs, but they insisted rather to carry on with the exact same approach all season long. It didn't matter to them if it's worked or not; it's what they practiced at training camp, it's what they decided their offense would be, and, to them, it was more productive to stick to an offense they know rather than attempt to introduce new ideas mid-season and confuse the players. That was their thinking. To adjust when failing, is to admit to failure, and that is not the perspective of this franchise. Instead they will carry on running the same off-tackle stretch-plays to Benson 25 times a game and be satisfied with under four yards a carry for the season. They will continue to ignore their other talents and wait for Benson's legs to fall off before addressing any kind of need at the position. He may not want to endure that, but it's easy money to run for nothing, and that's exactly what he is likely to do in Cincinnati.