Annual Reviews Part 5: Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

CINCINNATI - DECEMBER 26: Jermaine Gresham #84 of the Cincinnati Bengals celebrates with Andrew Whitworth #77 and Anthony Collins #73 after scoring a touchdown during the NFL game against the San Diego Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium on December 26 2010 in Cincinnati Ohio. The Bengals 34-20. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The strange relationship between Terrell Owens and the Cincinnati Bengals began last year at the Super Bowl when Chad Ochocinco publicly campaigned for the hall-of-famer.  They would be Batman and Robin, he promised, TO playing the role of Batman and Chad volunteering to become his sidekick.

Even though the team first signed Antonio Bryant only to find out he was damaged goods, TO did eventually end up in stripes and despite turning in a tremendous 14 games, he was perhaps the main ingredient to the offensive struggles throughout the season.

Someone within the Bengals became obsessed with getting the ball to TO.  Many times, the ball was forced his way, typically just thrown up for grabs.  The success rate for completions was low in this scenario, and more often, turned into immediate disaster.  Not to say TO didn't make some great catches -- the juggling act in the end zone on a deep ball that was waived off from a holding penalty against Buffalo comes to mind -- but there were multiple occasions where I felt he didn't make enough of an effort to either make the catch or break up the pass to prevent an interception.  He may have giant, muscular arms, but it seemed they got awfully short if there were defenders running with him.  He isn't one to stretch out and make the diving catch; the ball is either thrown into his arms or it falls incomplete -- he will not go get it in the air. 

Had he been targeted 30 less times or so on the year, Chad, Jermaine Gresham, and Jordan Shipley could have had more of an impact and force defenders to take on a much more balanced throwing attack -- and he still would have ended with 42 catches and around 600 yards on the year.  Would he have been satisfied with such low totals and kept his cool?  Not if they were still losing, but ultimately, I think he would be satisfied with any role that wins games.  He could have been an effective weapon with a unique skill-set if used in harmony with the other receivers, but instead he became the alpha dog of the pack and was over used, allowing defenses to hone in on the predictably of the play-calling and the telegraphed throws from Carson Palmer

Eventually he blew up his knee and was mercifully removed from the equation.  The moment that injury occurred, the balance returned and the offensive came to life. 


Was it coincidence that the backups looked better than men dubbed Batman & Robin once they were put into the game?  Not a chance.  The younger the receiver is, the more he has to learn.  Players like Gresham, Shipley, Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell have a lot more to worry about than nicknames, and I think that's what makes them better football players: attention to details that actually matter.  Who consistently ran the wrong routes this season?  Chad.  Who dropped the most passes?  TO.  Who was the most reliable receiver by mid-season?  Shipley.  Who played with a mean streak and gave the most effort?  Gresham.  Who is your favorite receiver going into next season?  Simpson.  This little Q&A demonstrates what went wrong with the projected glory that Batman and Robin were so supposed to provide.  A series of little problems culminated into one giant cluster-cuss by the end. 

Now Chad is feeling a little ignored because of his crappy season and is making as much noise as he can through the social-media channels he adores.  His value is at an all-time low and the success of the younger guys late last year demonstrates how replaceable he has become.  In fact, Simpson looks like Chad Johnson in 2003.  He moves like Chad, runs the same routes, and even has the ball-security issues after the catch.  Why keep both when one is younger with limited mileage, and the other is no longer great but still commands good enough value in a trade?  Seems like a no-brainer.  Chad should go to New England and win Super Bowls in exchange for a couple of those first-day draft-picks the Patriots have stockpiled in this draft. 


Alas, he will not be traded because that isn't the Bengal way.  He will suit up next year with reportedly "Johnson" on his back and throw up his hands after he and Carson fail to communicate for the four-hundredth time in their careers.  I like the guy, but he's frustrating.  Getting the ball to him has become tediously difficult.  When he does bring a pass down, I'm typically more relieved than pleased, and that hasn't always been the case with 85.  I can't tell if his skills are eroding, or if the offense has grown out of hand for him to fully master.  Either way, he doesn't frighten defenses like he used to and one begins to wonder if he ever will again.


Even if TO and Chad leave, the Bengals have one guy to lean on and build a passing game around: Gresham.  This is a monster-man capable of Antonio Gates-like performances.  There is no reason why he should not be a pro-bowler soon and end up as the best Bengal tight-end in the team's history once he hangs it up.  The best part about Gresham is that he knows how big he is.  He knows how to position himself just right to where smaller people cannot interfere with him making the catch.  He knows he's big enough to mix it up with linebackers which he does often, and he knows where the first-down marker is and will battle to reach it.  He's one of the nastier players the Bengals have drafted in a long time and fits in well with AFC North.  In a run-first offense, the tight-end becomes a crucial player to convert third-and-mediums, which Gresham can do in a variety of ways.  He runs the screen well, gets to the flats (except in New York, apparently), and uses his size in the end-zones.  If safeties and linebackers begin doubling him, it would clear a lot of space for the shifty little Shipley to operate in.

Shipley is solid with excellent fundamentals.  He runs crispy routes, is fearless running across the middle and has very good hands.  The comparisons to Wes Welker may have derived from racial stereotypes in football, but it turned out that the two were used pretty dag-on similarly in their respective offenses.  The smallish slot-guy targeted on third down is essentially a safety valve for the quarterback to pick up some key yards-after-catch and keep the drive going.  Shipley can do exactly that, and could become Palmer's other go-to guy.  Imagine Gresham and Shipley working as the inside receivers as they develop and improve.  Third-down and red-zone conversions should become a forte to an offense with reliable receivers like that.  Even if wide-outs, Simpson and Caldwell, don't consistently produce the way they did those last few games, the inside guys can easily make up the difference.

Out of those two outside players, Simpson seems like the more attractive one to keep for the long-term.  Caldwell has had his moments -- he boasts some game-winning plays within his highlight reel -- but he hasn't had a season's worth of consistency.  He seems like a hard worker and he still has some quality years in him, he certainly isn't a lost cause, but he needs to raise his game a few notches if he wants to be a starter in this league and force the Bengals to move Ochocinco. 

As for Simpson, the man has enormous hands, is fast and lanky, showed some heart last year down the stretch and had ample time to learn how to be a professional.  He has earned the increase in passes he is sure to see next year and he adds an element of entertainment for Bengals fans.  After swearing him off for not playing -- some questioning his existence altogether -- so many of us are now intrigued to see the myth play well. 

All of these young guys to throw to would excite most quarterbacks, especially since they're ripe to mold and call your own, but Carson Palmer is not excited.  He appeared to enjoy himself more playing with this group of backups last year.  The drama which he detests might finally drift away from PBS this off season if the divas indeed find new homes next year, but that apparently isn't enough to tempt him into returning.  Therefore, a new coordinator will call the plays for these young receivers in 2011 and a new quarterback will throw to them -- to predict any future scheme is impossible at this point -- but who ever these newcomers are, they will have a solid foundation of talent to use in the passing game.  Without TO gobbling up the ball all the time, the young bucks should blossom in short time. 


Mojokong—the sun is out.
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