It's the ultimate goal for NFL teams, fulfilling a need that motivates to a certain destiny. It's where fans hope to see their teams finish, celebrating for six months with pounding chests following a path that made fanatics feel as if they were just as responsible for winning as the players. It's the ultimate prize, the big game. It's the Super Bowl. So we take a look at the Bengals today and the reasonable expectations that this team may have producing a Super Bowl reasonably soon.
QUARTERBACK: Andy Dalton proved to be a tremendously intelligent quarterback, appropriately applying the precision, timing and defensive reads needed to thrive in a west coast offense. Though he failed to capture the Rookie of the Year Award over the weekend (no thanks to Cam Newton's brilliant season), Dalton showed those intangibles that help teams win. If you were to compare Dalton to either quarterback playing during today's Super Bowl, you'd have to go with Eli Manning. Why? Pressure-packed third down conversions, just enough escapability to hit one of his receivers on a big play within an offense that preaches balance.
Based on what we know, there's a feeling that this team is closer to the Super Bowl, based on their quarterback, than with Carson Palmer. But then again. Expectations were similar were huge then also, with a Super Bowl appearing more likely after Palmer's second playing season in 2005. We saw how that broke down.
RUNNING BACK: Marvin Lewis' vision of a powerful rushing attack complimenting a west coast offense that sustains possessions by spreading the field didn't work in 2011 for a number of reasons. The offensive line struggled, opposing defenses keyed off the run thus neutralizing whatever threat that Cincinnati's running backs brought to the table -- which wasn't much to begin with.
Additionally running backs are critical in the west coast offense. If a running back blocks during a passing play, it allows undercoverage to take a deeper drop cutting off intermediate routes. On the other hand if the running back clears out, heads for one of the flats, it opens undercoverage with defenders tracking those routes, opening passing lanes over the middle.
If Cincinnati plans to continue using the west coast offense, they'll need to apply the critical uses of running backs in those routes, otherwise they're hurting themselves by keeping coverages focused on just four players -- sometimes less.
But before anything, they have to address the need for improving that talent during the offseason.
WIDE RECEIVERS AND TIGHT ENDS: Hopefully we're not trapping ourselves by beating a dead horse claiming Jermaine Gresham has the talent, but needs that breakout season. Though this is expectations at its finest, considering that, thanks to the Super Bowl, Gresham played in the 2012 NFL Pro Bowl. But if we learned anything, it's that playoff teams this year had tremendous production from their tight ends, and it's not far-fetched that the Bengals have a tight end that could get them to the Super Bowl.
On the other hand the team's receiver position isn't as promising. There's A.J. Green and then there's everyone else.
Though Jerome Simpson has had his explosive moments, he's had many more disappointments in 2011. It's not that we think Simpson can't be a successful wide receiver in the NFL, but we have to question his ability to adapt to the west coast offense, which relies heavily on precision, depth and timing. If the wide receiver is a step slow coming out of his break, then the coverage will quickly compensate, converging on the the football and cutting off the route. Too quick and the receiver takes himself out of the play on a route that runs him near coverage. And said receiver dropping passes is no good to an offense.
The love for Andrew Hawkins was neat, but the team used the first-year wide receiver as a gadget player during bubble screens with five rushing attempts. Rookie Ryan Whalen eventually became the distinctive slot receiver, taking part in more snaps as the team's slot receiver than Hawkins in the last four games of the season (including the playoff loss to the Houston Texans). Yet neither appear to be your idealistic slot receiver like Jordan Shipley, who will return in 2012 after suffering a season-ending injury in week two against the Broncos.
Shipley and Gresham can become great second and third options, but neither are No. Two receivers, which a west coast offense heavily relies on.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Where do we start? Our big uglies were as poor run blocking as any unit on this team last year. Though pass protection appeared superb, we really don't know the extent how poor they could have been due to Jay Gruden's philosophy to force Dalton into a quick three-step drops, getting rid of the football before the pass rush disrupted the passing game -- a perfect example on how a coach perfectly uses the personnel he has.
You'd see hints of it during deeper drops, eventually forcing Dalton to rollout and escape to get rid of the football. If the Bengals make their way to the Super Bowl, it will be because this offense line was completely rebuilt.