After setting career highs in yards rushing and rush attempts during the Bengals 10-6 AFC North championship season (which feels like 10 years ago already), running back Cedric Benson followed that up with could be considered a disappointment, nearly setting a career low with a 3.5 yard/rush average. His 26-yard run in the second quarter against the Bills now stands as the shortest "long run" of any given year. Five fumbles lost last season laps the four he lost during the previous five seasons in his career; he fumbled seven times last year, equaling his combined fumble total before the season. On the other hand he did set career highs in touchdowns rushing, receptions and he scored his first receiving touchdown against the Carolina Panthers. So there's that.
Oh, he also has two pending assault charges to answer for.
It's a difficult suggestion that the Bengals should re-sign Benson, so we won't necessarily make that. Yet we can't get the nagging feeling out of our minds with the possibility and the idea of bringing back Benson, even after a disappointing season and an even worse offseason.
Benson has proven to be a productive running back when the Bengals offensive philosophy dictated it. During Cincinnati's 10-6 season that won the AFC North crown (no, it feels like 20 years ago), the Bengals ran the football 49.95% of the time. And of the times the Bengals ran the football, Benson accounted for 60.8% of the team's rushing yards and 59.6% of their total attempts. During their 4-12 follow-up campaign, the Bengals ran the football 40.9% of the time. And of those rushing attempts, Benson accounted for 75% of the team's total rushes and 73% of their total yards rushing. A severe decline in rushing offense and an increase of Benson's participation. There are unigornable differences, of course, largely saturating those numbers. Benson missed three games in 2009, allowing Bernard Scott to try his hand as a feature back. Until he got hurt. Larry Johnson substituted until Benson returned.
Yet Cincinnati's obsession to throw the football last season destroyed the team's rhythm to run the football. Bengals quarterbacks attempted 590 passes in 2010; third most since 1988. History is aided in Cincinnati's argument that the less you throw, the more you gain. Three of the team's five lowest passing attempt totals during any given year includes the 1988 Super Bowl team (only 392 pass attempts), the 1990 (425) and 2009 (477) playoff squads. Yet the top-five seasons with the most pass attempts all ended with losing records.
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Here's another fact. The Bengals need a running back. Sure. They could go after some of the more popular names in free agency, but it's not like the Bengals would be the only team bidding on them. And no matter how much they are reportedly forced to spend, the justification of a contract, compared to the importance of the position, will weigh heavily in Mike Brown's mind. That's why we don't keep guards, cornerbacks or safeties. A guy like DeAngelo Williams sounds nice, yet other teams will work their general manager magic to acquire him, most likely knocking Cincinnati out of the running because that's just what happens. Listen to me. Sounding pessimistic. The Bengals could surprise us. History suggests otherwise.
Bernard Scott is always an intriguing vote. Yet durability concerns always surface. During Scott's first career NFL start against the Cleveland Browns with Cedric Benson on the shelf in 2009, Scott injured his foot and missed the next four games. Scott did post a career-high 119 yards rushing against the Oakland Raiders (along with a career-high 61-yard run) the prior week, but Brian Leonard started that game. Allowing him to become the feature back is an experiment worth trying again, but not for the sake of ignoring the position for obvious needs. Maybe a better rotation between Benson and Scott; that seems like it would work. Then again, we have to make the point that if the Bengals do sign Benson, he could be limited in action based on how the league enforces the personal conduct policy. Additionally, if the league waits for Benson's legal issues to pan out, then he could start the season and give Andy Dalton, or a veteran quarterback that has to shotgun his education on the system, a chance to ease into the game. Perhaps an undrafted free agent or two could fill the void he leaves.
Yet what we know of Benson is two-fold. We know he's a bellcow, something this team just doesn't have right now. Taking the pounding with an exceptionally high endurance will be borderline necessary, especially with an offensive coordinator promoting a rushing offense, much like the squad did preceding the 2009 season; our little benchmark on how a team goes from four wins to a playoff season in the span of nine months. Dating back to 2009, the Bengals posted ten wins against six losses during games that Benson posted at least 20 rush attempts. And in nine of the Bengals previous 32 regular season games, Benson posted at least 25 carries, helping the Bengals win eight.
Most importantly comes two formidable arguments that the Bengals might employ. Benson is a known quality, having been in Cincinnati for the better part of three seasons. Comfort level means a lot and it's a rather endearing argument to the Bengals brass, especially if that player produces. Cincinnati had no reason to bring Chris Henry back in 2008. Yet, they did because the comfort level of what he was about was staggering high. Combined with the roll Henry's journey had towards redemption, the late wide receiver rewarded Cincinnati with a production.
And the most realistic argument that the Bengals might use signing Benson to a contract for the 2011 season? Well, cost of course. With two pending assault charges, a declining 2010 season, what team will go out of their way to spend their money no Benson right now? After the 2009 season, prior to Benson's first alleged assault during the Memorial weekend in 2010, there was a reported contract offer on the table that would given Benson a deal worth $16-$20 million over three years. That story faded as our tolerance with that one fly that keeps buzzing around the living room. Now we can't believe Benson would find an offer out there worth anything close to what the Bengals signed Benson just before the 2009 season (two years, $7 million).
If the assault charges worry you, consider this. The NFL isn't likely to suspend Benson on his first charge, largely understood as being in self-defense. His second assault charge took an interesting turn that has our minds in conspiratorial overdrive.
Cincinnati receives a cheap, established bellcow running back that takes pressure off Andy Dalton. The additional money allows the Bengals to reinvest into other areas. Jerome Simpson, Leon Hall, Bobbie Williams, Andre Caldwell or god-forbid, Johnathan Joseph. Hall will be pricey and the Bengals may elect to see if last year's explosion wasn't a fluke for Simpson. It also reduces the need to spent too much on a running back in free agency -- which is always dicey due to how quickly a running back's production in the NFL declines.
The only thing is, we'll just have to keep him out of Texas throughout the life of the contract so he'll stay out of trouble.